Radio Shack storeFirst, the full disclosure: I was a Radio Shack aficionado.  I loved the place.  Growing up, I used to visit my local store in Wheaton, weekly at least, to buy self-assembly electronics kits, shop for electronics parts, buy books on electronics, buy radios, tape recorders, speakers, battery chargers, my first PDA (Radio Shack’s rebranded Casio Zoomer), and just check out the cool stuff everywhere.  I used to joke that any small town my family visited wasn’t civilized unless it had a Radio Shack in it.  (“Look, there’s the Radio Shack!  It’s a real town, all right!”)

My love of electronics and computers came from Radio Shack.  My serious consideration of getting an electrical engineering degree came from my association with the Shack (boy, how I wish I’d figured out how to follow that through!).

Now, I don’t visit Radio Shacks often… and neither does anyone else.  Which is why the original owners declared bankruptcy, the chain has just been sold in auction to another company, and its future as a store and chain is very much up in the air.

What is not up in the air is this: Radio Shack’s original purpose—as a place for America’s electronics enthusiasts and hobbyists to buy, build and learn about radios, electronics and other related gear—has effectively come to an end.  The American DIY electronics era, and its designated street-corner shrine, is done.

When Radio Shack started in 1921, radio itself—hell, electronics itself—was new.  We were in an era of vacuum tubes, condensers and transformers the size of your fist, and radio sets the size of a loveseat.  It was a new frontier, and in the 40s, the postwar hobbyist saw amazing fun and potential in the new field, a field that would let you speak to people across the planet, create cool household gizmos with pre-prepared kits, and even augment or just plain beef up the gadgets appearing on your store shelves.

TANDY Z-550 PDA
One of the first PDAs–the precursor to the smartphone–and the Shack had it. (So did I.)

The creation of the transistor, and not long after, the integrated circuit (IC), opened up even more incredible possibilities for hobbyists, and brought more people into the Shack, especially to introduce their kids to things like the 150-in-1 electronics kit, the self-assembled desktop radio and more tiny doo-dads than you could shake a charge card at.  Radio Shack also introduced many people to their first tape recorder, their first portable radio, their first Walkman, their first computer and, finally, their first cellphone.  I got my first taste of a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA, the precursor to the blackberry and the smartphone, pictured at right), and I actually wrote my first novel on it!  But it was the do-it-yourself market where the Shack really shone.

But as electronics have continued to shrink, devices have gotten cheaper and integrated with whatever was The Next Big Feature, the American pastime of repairing, rebuilding and repurposing electronics has waned through the 21st century.  No one repairs a cellphone or radio any more; most of the time, not only is it physically impossible to do so, but it would “break your warranty” (the industry’s favorite phrase to convince you not to mess with your own stuff); so they literally throw it away and buy the latest one with the Gorilla Glass screen.

The products it sells have lost most of their luster as well; Radio Shack is no longer the first place to go for quality electronics… in fact, it’s usually pretty low on consumers lists, typically ranking evenly alongside 5-and-dimes and Wal-Mart.

EPROM Microchip
When electronic circuit-building largely became inaccessible to hobbyists.

And the Shack’s position as the great local place to get information about electronics has been usurped by the web.  The highly social environment of users supported by their local electronics expert has eroded, as Shack personnel have become less and less expert about electronics and more expert about selling batteries and phone plans.  It’s become much easier getting the info you need by Googling or checking out a user group.

Radio Shack was truly a 20th century American icon, made for the modern “We can do it” aesthetic.  But now that 21st century America is in a “We don’t know (or care) how it works anyhow” mode, there is no room for Radio Shack.  It’s future is most likely to be a place to buy cellphones, and to serve those whose closest brush to DIY is to run a new cable from the smart TV to the DVD player.

Should we mourn Radio Shack, then?  Not really; The Shack served its 20th century purpose, providing a service to enthusiasts and sending many a boy and girl into an electronics career.  But our technology has moved past the Shack and largely removed its original purpose.

So, maybe we should instead mourn the loss of the people who frequented it: Those who liked building with their hands, troubleshooting and fixing their own problems; who were willing to make what they wanted, if they couldn’t find it on a store shelf; and who desperately wanted to know how the Next Big Thing worked… and if they could be in on it with both hands.  There are still a few people like that out there.  But now, they’ll have one less place to get together.