I thought the surplus electronics market in Dallas was a byproduct of local manufacturing, after all we have some heavy hitters in our back yard: Texas Instruments, Maxim (Dallas Semiconductor), ST Micro (at one time), Diodes Incorporated. If we widen our radius to include Austin (3 hours down the road) we can make a much more impressive list by including: National Instruments, Freescale Semiconductor, better yet I’ll just insert the graphic I’m pulling data from right here:
Granted, not all of these are companies that manufacture silicon, or even have manufacturing facilities here in Texas. That doesn’t necessarily matter for surplus to exist. Back to my point of where surplus originated. While I wasn’t completely wrong (these companies certainly have helped contribute to the surplus electronics market) the beginnings of surplus storefronts date back to World War II. Did anyone see that coming? Neither did I. However it does make sense, the US government would have had a large stock of “stuff” to get rid of at the end of the war.
Enter the sale of government surplus all over the nation, usually near air force bases. So this is how the more generalized concept of a surplus shop came to be in existence; mix in the domestic manufacturing of electronics in the 1970’s and we have electronics surplus shops aplenty.
My First Hand Experience
I didn’t really appreciate how valuable my local electronics shop was until watching Beers in Bunnie’s Workshop – Workshop Video #36. If you haven’t seen the video you only need to know that [Ian] of Dangerous Prototypes and [bunnie] of Andrew [bunnie] Huang are standing in [bunnie]s work-space in Singapore drinking beer and talking about the lab that is [bunnie]s life. You with me now? Okay, there is a point in the video where the two discuss the ability to run down the street and buy a connector as something only available in Singapore or Shenzhen. Let me briefly pause here to clarify that I’m not comparing my local electronics shop to the Shenzhen market or Sim Lim Tower in Singapore, only stating that I too can hold parts in-hand before purchasing them. I’m also not [brandon] of Dangerous Prototypes or Andrew [brandon] Huang, clearly.
I do however have an electronics selection at my disposal that is unmatched until you get to the west coast shops. I went on a bit of an adventure with the owner [Jim Tanner] of my local shop [Tanner Electronics] to take some pictures of the retail floor and a few behind the scenes (warehouse) shots that you can check out after the break.
One of the Last Remaining
Tanner Electronics is one of only 3 surplus electronics shops that are still operating in Dallas. However, in the mid to late ’70s there were quite a few:
- Off the shelf components
- EPO (Houston location still in business)
- Electronic Discount Sales (recently closed)
- BG Micro (still in business: online surplus)
- Banner TV
- Olson Electronics
- Rockwell Outlet
- Tucker Electronics (still in business: online sales of test equipment and manuals)
- Wilkinson Brothers
- Wholesale Electronics
- R&R Electronics
- Tanner Electronics (still in business: retail storefront).
Another one that was quite popular was Charlie Wilson’s 15¢/lb surplus pile. I wasn’t aware that this type of thing was going on in Dallas, but it was exactly as it sounds. Charlie Wilson would rent a big truck, load it up with surplus electronics and dump it in a parking lot for customers to sift thru and pay by the pound.
There is also a sidewalk sale that still exists in Dallas and has been around since the early 70s. Every 1st Saturday of the month vendors meet in Downtown Dallas to sell what started out as ham gear in the early days but has devolved to a wide variety of items that you might see at a flea market. The majority of the vendors are selling electronics, but the errant perfume stand or name brand knock-off clothing peddler can be seen as well. The vendors start to set up their booths as early as 9pm the Friday before and will remain open until 2pm Saturday. I’ve made more than one trip downtown in the middle of the night. The most memorable was the time I went for a backup server and it started raining as I was carrying it to the car. So now it’s 4am and I’m running thru downtown Dallas with a 2U Dell PowerEdge (okay maybe it wasn’t a stride that was visually pleasing, but it was all the effort I could make with a machine that size in-tow). Yeah, you can buy a server at 4am under a bridge in Dallas no problem, given it’s the 1st Saturday of the month and you have cash money.
Walking into one of these shops is very different from ordering parts online, as we all have become accustomed to. They are surplus shops, they only have surplus items for sale. What does that mean? That means you can buy any number of items that may not be available next time you come in the shop. In fact you could buy a motor or motor assembly and never be able to find one of them again. There’s a chance you might not ever find data on the motor either, I know what you’re thinking: “My Google-Fu is strong. I find parts and data no one else can.” Yep, I thought the same thing but the fact of the matter is that some of these parts are custom made for specific designs and even calling the manufacturer yields no data.
However, this system creates an advantage of equal magnitude. Surplus shops get parts and assemblies for extremely reduced prices which means we can buy them from the shop for orders of magnitude less than others are asking for the same item.
Texas Instruments also had regular auctions where you could pick up anything from components to motor assemblies to test equipment. The only thing you couldn’t find at these auctions was anything branded “Texas Instruments”.
Adapting to Survive
Obviously the domestic manufacturing of electronics has moved from continent to continent a few times since the ’70s. This puts shops that mainly dealt with surplus suppliers in grave danger of closing the doors. Things had to change as the surplus well dried up. Where you could previously only purchase values of resistors that had been sold to the shop as surplus, now you can buy any common value of resistor in a variety of power ratings as well as capacitors of common value in a variety of materials.
What started with filling in the resistor values to meet customer needs is now display cabinets and shelving dedicated to the hobbyists. Arduino and Raspberry Pi compatible bits and pieces can be found along with current issues of Makezine without looking too hard. However a keen eye will spot a row of boxes behind the microcontroller display marked “Z80A”, “Z80B”, “Z80 DMA”, “Z80 PIO”, “1 Meg D-RAM”. Which is but a few rows before original 7400 series can be found, not to be confused with 74LS, or 74HC, or 74HCT, or ALS or 4000 series CMOS which can all be found behind the counter in through hole packages and sold by the each.
Talkin’ Shop with the Old Timers
As a college senior in Electronics Engineering I get exposed to quite a bit of information on a daily basis, most of it I don’t commit to memory (my profs don’t read this, do they?). But at [Tanner’s] I am subjected to information from the old timers that is unparalleled. I’m not saying you should drop out and watch YouTube instead, but there is an education available thru shared experience that you won’t find in a classroom. If you don’t believe me go binge watch [Bil Herd] videos and tell me if it’s the same as reading a textbook. Or if you have a million hours to spare fire up [Dave Jones]’ YouTube channel and see how that compares to a circuits 101 course.
There is a reason the two aforementioned men have a nerd-cult following, they were around when you still had dataBOOKS and you couldn’t answer obscure questions with a quick “Okay Google…”. I only mention them because you’re sure to know who they are, but rest assured there are people of similar caliber near you. These veterans have committed an enormous amount of information to memory and its a resource we lost when the storefronts closed.
Surplus stores are fading away. But the biggest loss isn’t the availability of inventory, it’s the loss of culture. If you don’t know already where to find them in your area, start by looking for the local ham radio or retro computing club. If you can stoke the local talent in you area, sit them down and explore their cache memory after asking them: “Hey, what’s a curve tracer?”. Believe me, you’re in for a conversation you won’t soon forget.