RIP John Birkett, Parts Vendor Extraordinaire

It is with sadness that we note the passing of John Birkett, proprietor of the legendary eponymous surplus radio and electronics store on an unassuming street in the British city of Lincoln, at the age of 93. He has been a fantastic source of esoteric parts and electronic assemblies for many decades, and though many of you from beyond where this is being written may never have heard of him the chances are that if you follow electronics enthusiasts from the UK you will have unwittingly seen parts which passed through his hands.

A typical Birkett advert from 1986
Gateway to a world of wonders: a typical Birkett advert from 1986.

There was a time when surplus stores were a relatively common sight, given their window of opportunity by the huge quantity of post-war and Cold War military gear at knock-down prices. My town had one when I was a kid, but though it sold its share of electronic goodies it was more of a place for sturdy olive green outdoor wear or all the 1930s British military uniform items you might ever need. J. Birkett was different, as a purely electronics store the shop rapidly became the go-to place for both the most necessary and the most unexpected of parts.

His motto was “Not a piece of junk in sight”, and though as with much surplus equipment there is plenty of junk to be found it was his eye in managing to stock the junk which was most interesting and useful that made his selection special. Such was its reach that most of his customers including me never made it to Lincoln and the store itself, instead we came to him through his mail-order business and attendance at radio rallies. I fondly remember the anticipation of receiving a Birkett parcel, and I still have plenty of parts that came from him. An FM tuner converted for use as a 2 meter receiver is still in a box somewhere, and I’m pretty certain my storage unit still holds a pair of Pye Cambridge VHF transceivers he supplied.

According to Google the shop remains open, and we hope that state of affairs will continue. Surplus may not be what it once was, but we thank John Birkett for what he gave to generations of British hardware hackers. May he rest in peace.

Header image: Oliver Mills, (CC BY-SA 2.0).

33 thoughts on “RIP John Birkett, Parts Vendor Extraordinaire

  1. Whilst I only visited Birkett’s once (on holiday with my family) back in the mid 1980’s my own home town of Cardiff, South Wales in the U.K. had a similar shop – Charlie Marks in the Wyndham Arcade. Whilst Marks did sell some new components he also had vast amounts of old electronic fruit machine boards for sale, an amazing source of cheap resistors and 74 series logic chips for a school kid on a pocket money budget, and many of his “display cabinet” fronts were recycled front facias from these machines – clear glass once the graphics and bulb assemblies had been removed.

    I was so fortunate to live in a city where we had not one but two electronic component shops (the afore mentioned Marks, and also Steve’s Electronics in the Castle Arcade), and later a third when Maplin arrived on the high street – sadly all three now long gone. Different times, and one that allowed the hobby enthusiast to have a one to one discussion with the proprietor who was an enthusiast themselves, long before the internet and Amazon/eBay that offer similar supply and discussion opportunities today.

    The next time I’m “up north” I’ll be sure to pop by.

    1. I remember Charlie Marks store and the large fruit machine PCB’s. That place was the source of most of my early electronics adventures and was a regular place to visit when my parent went to Cardiff. We lived at the time up in the valleys and a trip to Cardiff was very special. I miss these places and very much enjoyed the pot-luck of what you found.

  2. On a similar note, I’m sure some of you who either live in the surrounding area of Cambridge, or have had the occasion to visit will remember H. Gee on Mill Road in the city.
    The store was severely damaged in a fire, and never returned from the ashes. A true loss for the makers of Cambridge and the locality.

  3. I live not to far away from the shop. I have visited it many times over the years. Many a child over the years has entered the shop. Only to return years later as a radio ham with their own children or grandchildren. I hope the family keep the shop running. you enter with your shopping list for your project, bc108,bc109,2n3055, vero board. Only to spot an item and instantly think what can i make with that. This is where people how have the knack (dilbert) go to be inspired.

    Johns callsign is G8OPP

    G8OPP de M1CDQ Rest in peace

    Our Elmer, who art in radio heaven,

    Hallowed by thy constant wave.

    Thy propagation come.

    Thy will be done in the shack as it is in the manual.

    Give us this day our daily Sproradic E.

    And forgive us our pills politics and prostate nets,

    as we forgive those who transmit over us.

    And lead us not into deregulation,

    but deliver us from lids.

    For thine is the electro and the magnetic,

    and the radio frequency, for ever and ever.

    Amen

  4. And Luckily we have [Jenny List] other wise people like me in Australia would never hear of [John Birkett].

    At 93 he must have made an absolutely huge contribution. Condolences to his family.

    Here in Australia we had “Dick Smith” (still alive and kicking) who started Disk Smith Electronic which became the largest shopping chain where you could go but a quarter watt resistor and some transistors. We even had Tandy or Radio Shack for a while to.

    Later we had [Don McKenzie] who started https://www.dontronics.com/ and as far as I can remember was the beginning of the “BASIC Stamp” which was a PIC micro-controller that ran some form of BASIC and was the last generations Arduino.

    His storey is at the link above.

    There have been some truly remarkable people who have made absolutely huge contributions. Thankfully now we even learn of the females that were not fully acknowledged in their time of had their works attributed to a man.

    1. We still have Rockby (and they have a surplus section [including a now 2000’s era website – it was until recently 90’s]) which is at the site of what once was Rod Irving. Lest we remember All Electronic Components and most importantly Rite Buy Trading Co where all sorts of interesting bits could be found.

      1. Ahh, Rockby Electronics, among the last of a byegone age…I still get stuff from them (despite their ancient website – it works and does not require Web 3 doo-dads!) Altronics and Jaycar are still going but very retail nowadays.

    2. Strangely, we have Dick Smith branded stuff turning up in the surplus aisle at the Princess Auto stores here in Canada. Mostly it’s USB cables and phone accessory tat though. Though there were some Velleman kits that may have come by the same route.

  5. I first met John when I was a 14 year old schoolboy in the ’70s. Me and my mate would regularly take the 20 mile bus journey to gaze in John’s window and rave through his boxes of FT171B Xtals looking for values we could tweak with toothpaste or valve grinding paste. He would always make time for you and was very encouraging. When I got my ticket 10 or so years later, I would see him at Lincoln hamfest and he always had time for a chat. The last time I spoke to him, he was having trouble with his eyes which were preventing him keeping his hours up to hang on to his pilot’s license, but that was probably 20 years ago now: Time seems to rush by faster each day. John will be fondly remembered by all that knew him or had dealing with him. RIP.

  6. I went to university in Lincoln and would stop to peer in the windows every time I went past. It was an endless novelty. While I never met John, it makes me smile to hear how popular the shop was over many years. I hope it’s still there the next time I’m passing through.

  7. I was not aware of the gentleman but I passed his shop when in Lincoln and my wife had to forcible take my wallets as I tried to decide between a Hunters altimeter or a Vulcan’s gyro. A fantastic shop and another one of those quirky corners you find in a sea of mediocrity

    1. I have one of Johnny B’s Vulcan altimeter in pride of place, and it has much more about it now I’ve learnt of his passing. It is a constant reminder of the state of the weather, and of great memories of being in his shop, and buying more items and cables and connectors than I care to remember since my first introduction to his shop in the early 1980’s. A great man, sorely missed. RIP JB

  8. Sad day indeed. I was only recently looking at the Strait on streetview and was surprised to see the shop still there… when I was growing up it was a cornucopia of electronic surplus as well as my go to for components of all kinds. It’s a shame the pictured ad is so late, when JB used to type them he wore out the @ key, it gave them a very distinctive look in the magazines!

  9. I used to live just around the corner from his shop, and walked past every day to and from work.
    In the summer you would walk past the open door just to see John sat there surrounded by a what most would think was a pile of rubbish, but to him, and a selection of very passionate people, that would be an absolute treasure.
    I remember buying a few resistors and switches from him, and he seemed almost annoyed I was even disturbing him for such insignificant parts. Sometimes he would be in his show deeply engaged into a conversation about some plane instruments or radio parts, and that is clearly where his passion was.
    I loved watching the turists walking past and just stop and look at these magnificent instruments that used to be in a plane, just like it was a museum.
    Sadly I don’t believe his daughter will continue the business, but hope that someone with just as much passion as John will take it over.
    RIP John.

  10. Shocked I never knew it was there, as my grandparents were from there, so relatively frequent visits to the city but other than a particularly good RC and model train shop (no idea what it is/was called, but I could easily go back there) the place didn’t seem to have any other greatly interesting shops. Feels like I missed I out, always a shame when the old guard pass on, hopefully the legacy of interesting oddities in the store will survive it.

    1. The model shop of choice when I was growing up was Nobbs, though it sold a lot of other stuff and was my supplier of chemicals and glassware as well as modelling supplied. I don’t know if that was the one you are thinking of but, if so, I am sad to say that that entire area is gone. The Road down to the old market is still there but those along the frontage disappeard when the new bus station was being developed. The model shop that was on the Strait was not there when I when I was growing up, there was a bic-a-brac shop and a shop sold a variety of weird and wondeful musical instruments, though there was a prepondrrance of ancient accordions (in fact, my first one came from there).

      I always used to go and browse JB’s when I went to use the Lincoln Camera Club’s darkroom – I see from Streetview that the building that housed that is no longer extant. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, I left the city for good in the late 70s.

      1. Hobby shops were common here in the sixties. Even the department store had a lot of that stuff as an adjunct to the toy department. But getti g into electronics veered me away. It was much later that I went back to hobby shops getting brass tubing and other interesting things.

        And now most are gone, or morphed into glorified toy stores.

      2. Nobbs sounds familiar, but I can’t say for sure either way, might just be the place my parents or grandfather talked of.

        My Grandparents died quite a few years ago now, and I didn’t manage to visit the city much in their latter years anyway, so I expect the whole place is rather different, probably all changed to coffee shops, now closed thanks to the pandemic, except the the old cobbled streets around the cathedral and the big hill, expect those bits haven’t changed much..

  11. I well remember the Charlie Marks store in Newport, bunking off school and a 25 mile cycle ride to go and buy essential components! About 5 years ago I bought a ferrite rod (proper, old school Plessey part NoS!) from ebay, and when I looked at the delivery paperwork, realised there’s a good chance it came from the same box I was buying them from more than 30 years previously. (And also, that the ferrite rod is probably older than me!)

  12. Very sad news. Through all the years I went in, John’s looks never seem to change (unlike me and not in a good way). I could never walk passed the shop without taking a peek, even at night or for a real challenge when the windows were heavily condensated. I have a HF tuner of yours I see every day. Like many I’m sure, I would have always liked a behind the scenes tour. Rest in peace John, a well deserved break. May your legacy continue. You will be sadly missed by so many. Mark Briggs.

  13. I lived in Sleaford in the 50’s and 60’s. I used to bike to Lincoln to gaze in the window of Birkett’s and (occasionally) buy bits of surplus Lancaster. In the 70’s I bought bags of 74TTL logic chips and spent many happy hours sorting out the ones that worked and, in the process, learned logic the practical way. I have visited the shop many many times and its woven into my hobby in electronics. Never went in without a nod from John sat in the corner. Thank you John and RIP. God Bless

  14. We had our share of local surplus and new component suppliers in the USA too. But from the article I would have loved to have stopped by Mr. Birkett’s shop!

    In Huntsville AL we were fortunate enough to have three great suppliers – and the last one, Mock Electronics closed in 2013. We also had a national chain called Radio Shack. And although they were never a surplus shop, they kept a decent supply of basic components in stock as they remade themselves over and over again through the years.

    Now the best place in the USA to shop surplus electronics is https://www.allelectronics.com/ in California.

  15. OMG! What sad news, although I had forgotten of the name until I read this headline, thank you for bringing it to my attention. I’m sure I’ve bought stuff from him in the 1980 and 90s at radio rallies.

  16. I lived less than 5 minutes from J. Birkett sadly before my interest in making and electronics, but with a Tornado F3 navigator for a dad, I always enjoyed looking in the window at the gauges.

    I was there just a couple months ago visiting family and had a look inside. Imagine my surprise seeing it on Hackaday!

    RIP John!

  17. I remember my mum taking me in as a kid off maybe 10 (1984) or younger, and after a few years off me constantly comming in and buying odds and sods with my pocket money he offered me a Saturday job. But he wanted to talk to my mum before I could start, I got £10 a day which was a lot of money from my 50p pocket money and quite often fish and chips thrown in. I would work most off the summer holidays there packing mixed bags off resistors, moving truck loads off surplus equipment (and I mean truck loads!). Even worked there full time after I left school, I was there till 2004. He was a good freind and mentor and taught me a huge amount. I used to see him nearly every month but it was covid that stopped that, and without the interaction of customer he went downhill. When I started the haydays of surplus had been and gone, I listened to the tales off half the street covered in valve radio’s and parts. But John still bought surplus component from the likes of Marconi so would have rare components that where out of spec for military, but more than good enough for radio hams. He bought from the likes of British Telecom, interestingly one devision hadn’t told another. And new still in service equipment costing thousands was sold a scrap and left under a tree covered by a tarp till they bought it back. I have so many fun stories, its sad that kids don’t have that kind of thing available now where they could rumage thru a pile of surplus dreaming off what they could use it for.

    R.I.P John your freind Matt

  18. Just found this today after visiting the closed shop. This is a real shame and a loss to the electronics / ham radio communities. My thoughts are with his family.

  19. As the aforementioned Wood & Douglas on the advert, we had a very close relationship with John as he represented our products both at the shop and at rallies. In return we used to buy bulk bags of parts from him to sift and test to include in our early amateur radio kits. If we were at the same event I used to look forward to chatting with him and hearing his history in the RAF etc. Really nice guy, one of the best.

Leave a Reply to Chris Cancel reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.