While we were debating about whether it even makes any sense to reboot RadioShack, or indeed any brick-and-mortar electronics store in the modern era, Dan Maloney and I stumbled on what probably is the real source of all of our greybeard nostalgia for the store chain: inspiration.

For both of us, the appeal of a store like RadioShack was going through the place and thinking of what you’d do with all of those parts. Looking at the back of the beefiest MOSFET in the joint, you’d think about all the current you could pass with it. Or what you’d do with all of those piezo buzzers. And if you didn’t know yet what electronics project you wanted to make, there were things like the Forrest Mims notebooks to inspire you. There you’d find a way to turn the humble LED into a light sensor, whether you needed to or not. I wonder how many packs of assorted LEDs that book sold?!

Dan got his first hands on with a computer in RadioShack as well, because they let folks try them right there. If you didn’t know what you wanted a computer for, and that was the big question of the early microcomputer era, you could head into the store yourself and find out. Seeing, and playing with, Demon Dancer inspired.

A lot of this role is taken over by hackerspaces these days, and even more is taken by the Internet itself, of course. We have no shortage of inspiration – just read a day’s worth of Hackaday if you don’t believe me. So is there any room left for RadioShack’s inspirational role? Maybe not. But if that’s the cost of living in a world where we have access to more great ideas than we’ll ever have time to execute, then so be it!

55 thoughts on “Inspiration

  1. If there is any problem with inspiration these days, then it’s probably because of being overwhelmed by so many possible projects that it’s nearly impossible to make any choice at all.

  2. Yes, RS provided inspiration. As a high school senior wandering RS and looking for something to fulfill a physics project requirement, I saw a kit that amplified sound received by a speaker and sent it to earphones. Kind of a spy device, I suppose.

    Bought the kit, glued a length of coathanger wire sticking out of the center of the speaker and prest-o change-o voila!***: I had an electronic stethoscope! Earphones in ears, touch other end of wire to your chest and listen to your heart beat! Teacher was very impressed; it was by far the easiest 100% I got in that course.

    That being said, “inspiration” is good but with a googolplex of sites out there, inspiration isn’t going to be enough to feed the poor children of any venture capitalists or would-be CEOs who want to revive RS. ;-)

    ***PSA: For the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, please remember that it’s “Voila!”—-French for “Hold my beer and watch this!!”. “Viola” is a musical instrument. :) :D

    1. French here, you say “Voila” after something is done not before. The popular equivalent of “hold my beer” would be “Nique ta mère la tapin du coin” so you can use that when talking to family and friends

      1. American here, we say ‘viola’, to mock the French and ourselves. We know it’s ‘wrong’, don’t care.

        It’s not that we don’t know how to say Frauace, it’s just not called that here. It’s called FrAnce.

        Like ‘Ver-sails’, there are a few of those. (Michigan, Missouri, NY likely more).
        By democratic principle the American pronunciation is the correct one. Majority rules.

  3. Many years ago, 1998, on my first ever trip to the USA, my old, school mate from when we were 7, took me to Fry’s in Sunnyvale. I had just arrived from London and was massively jet-lagged.

    It opened at 7am and sold everything that a professional engineer might need to start their day, including coffee and snacks.

    As a young engineer from rural UK, I had never seen such a emporium of treasures.

    Some years later, whilst working in Agoura Hills, CA, I needed a portable oscilloscope in a hurry.

    No problem, pop into Fry’s on the outskirts of LA, hand over $2500 on the company card, and come out with a top of the range Fluke Scopemeter.

    I miss those days, where you could walk into a big-box store, buy essential stuff you need, and other stuff just for the hell of it.

    20 years on – I still have that Scopemeter.

    Inspirational – indeed!

      1. Yes. YES. YES!! Thank you.
        It is Jafar disguised as an old man to con Aladdin into going into the cave to retrieve the genie lamp.
        But Hackaday added a component reel into his hand. Clever!

  4. I think that HackaDay should open up a parts section at each of the locations, starting with the large cities that can aford to do it. I live in Hamilton Ontario Canada and would love to have a hackaday in town thow.
    I have been to Toronto’s 2 times but the travel is to long for me.

  5. It would have to be located in a place with a lot of electronics hackers. Perhaps in Shenzou ;-) (DUH). And in any case, it would have to be backed by a strong e-commerce site for electronic parts (ie. competitive with Chinese ones). Sounds rather difficult.

  6. On the subject of brick-and-mortar electronics stores – HELL YES!!!!!

    You can look at Digikey, Mouser, Electronics Goldmine, etc. all day long, and while that may provide some ideas and inspiration there’s NOTHING like actually walking into a store, playing touchy-feely with actual parts, kits, meters, tools and the like and talking IN PERSON ( I know that’s not a thing that the millennials and Gen-Z’ers do) to someone else who gets excited about not just having parts in hand but having another person who likes to discuss projects and applications for all that stuff too. And on occasion, the person behind the counter might have some degree of technical knowledge and can provide real help.

    Radio Shack did themselves in. Instead of going with their strengths, they opted for the quick fad with computers and cell phones. They played the “me-too” game and lost BIG. They didn’t have the balls to stay in their lane, they gambled and lost, in the process taking all of their loyal customers down the drain with them. They could have and should have payed attention to their loyal base, stayed the course and even doubled down on the science kits and basic electronics building blocks, and stocked more than 2 of everything (who did they think they where anyway, Noah’s Ark?). Had they embraced the cheap microcontroller revolution they would be huge right now, making their fortune from Arduino, Raspberry Pi and all of the follow-on peripheral boards from Seed, Sparkfun, and Adafruit. They would have inspired and supported more companies to join that fray and created their own ecosystem of science and technology spin-offs. They could have been bigger than ever, but went for the quick buck instead of investing in educating and supporting those who would grow the business.

    Hindsight’s 20-20, but this was growing as they were looking for that last pet rock to buy into. The bean counters didn’t understand nor would thy listen to the base. They got what they deserved, a place in the history books as another capitalist failure.

    I say this as a professional electronics engineer, who’s time as a kid was spent cursing the shelves, drawers and bins at least once a week. I bought the project kits. I bought the books. I could look through them and decide what I could continue learning from and which ones I already had the knowledge they contained. You can’t do that over the internet. I talked to other customers about what they were building and could on occasion guide someone to the right solution to a problem. It was inspiration with a front door and cashiers.

    When Fry’s announced their departure from the scene it ended that era of being able to walk into a building and get that giddy, “let’s see what we can make today” feeling. The wind left the sails. Being from the eastern US we didn’t have them here. A trip to a Fry’s was the electronics nerd’s trip to Mecca. No longer a possibility.

    If given half a chance, I would jump at the opportunity to start over building that opportunity for others to be inspired just by walking in and seeing firsthand what electronic Lego’s they could be inspired by and let their imaginations run wild with the thoughts of “I can build that”. It’s what’s missing from the STEM world today.

    Jumping off the soapbox now…

  7. I just drop at Ali for inspiration. Zillions of parts that would take several blocks of brick and mortar, very competitive prices that would be impossible with brick and mortar places, suggestions that no meatbag could ever manage, friendly refund whenever I got a problem, and I don´t even need to move when I need anything. And opening times are plain 24/7.

    No I really not regret brick and mortar shops with their limited choice, their prohibitive prices, the weeks long delays to order anything specific, unfriendly sellers, opening times not matching my free time, hours of transportation to get a part.

    And I will never ever again have to accommodate to a bulky expensive 63V electrolytic cap that does not fit my PCB because the seller pushed it to me, not having a slim 10V one in store. I just got a bag of many bags will most possible values , for a fraction of the price of what it would have cost in a RS.

    regretting RS is like having nostalgia of horse carriages: horse shit smells better than cars, but cars go faster, further, transport way more, are more comfortable, and are not moody.

  8. Axman surplus, University Ave, Minneapolis. I’ll never doubt the value of brick-n-mortar again! (not that I would anyway, having visited Fry’s, RS and others through the years) Instead of hours browsing online, I could actually heft and mess with, for example, various motors, comparing them instantly to others and to whatever project I had in mind and other drive parts in another aisle, seeing if they were new or used. Concrete instant gratification, rather than abstract shopping online. I bought one clearly-labeled harder-to-find incandescent bulb from a set of drawers, rather than a mystery pack online — an experience I hadn’t realized was so rare nowadays. I can understand how the economics might be hard for brick-n-mortar. Probably one reason axman isn’t air conditioned.

    1. I miss Ax Man so much! I moved to San Francisco, and you would think the area would be saturated with places like that or American Science & Surplus, but I have to drive 30 minutes to find a computer store even remotely similar to Micro Center. Every time I visit Minnesota, my home state, I get another $100 “Big Spender” token and more things for TSA to question me about.

  9. I sorely miss being able to walk into an electronics store and browse at stuff. I used to have locally a Fry’s, several Radio Shacks, and two independents that were here for over 50 years. Just one of the independents is still in business. The last time I went there to get a part, they had changed to a business to business only store, no browsing. The internet just isn’t the same experience.

    1. Thank You.
      Elliott’s conclusion, and the majority of comments I skimmed kinda broke my heart.

      I hope more folk like us speak up and makes stores like you mentioned, and folk like Eliott think twice.

      (sorry, I can’t subscribe to comments on this one to see if you respond)

  10. I have the great fortune of living in an area in Ontario where the pickings are pretty good. I spent much of my adult life in Toronto – I still have friends there and live only a short drive away. Although the choice isn’t what it once was, there are still quite a few stores there selling both new and surplus components, supplies, tools, etc. I live even closer to Mississauga, where there is a little cluster of similar stores that I occasionally go to and feel right at home in. And within five minutes of my house is one of several outlets of a small surplus chain called Sayal, and I spend a fair amount of time there, both for business and for pleasure.

    I’ve made many purchases online from Digi-Key, and a few from Mouser, and more than a few from ‘Zon. But there’s no community and no relationship in these transactions. A store that I can actually walk into gives me that sense of community, as well as visual, tactile, and olfactory stimulation that no online experience can match. And it prompts a lot more ‘speculative’ purchases than online shopping. Browsing an electronics store is a worthwhile experience in itself; partly similar to what an artist feels when shopping in an art supply store, but probably also similar to what an artist feels in an _art gallery_. For me at least, there is and always has been a very strong esthetic component to electronics – it often motivates me as much as any theoretical, mechanical, or practical consideration. Good stores are a big part of that esthetic sense, so the title of this HaD article really resonates with me.

    As an aside, I still want to reclaim the term “electronics store” from the grubby uncomprehending hands of our techno-peasant fellow citizens. When I was a kid just getting into electronics, things such as TV’s, radios, stereos and the like were purchased in TV, furniture, appliance, and department stores. Electronics stores sold components, solder, tools, books, etc, and the delineation was clear and universally understood. I still find myself getting excited when I hear someone mention an “electronics store”, and even at this late stage it still takes me a beat to realize that they’re probably not speaking my language.

    Maybe Radio Shack is partly to blame for this linguistic misappropriation. In spite of that, as others here have said, I’d love to see an RS revival if it was true to the roots of the company. But if it’s just a reincarnation of the pathetic mall presence they were for so many years before their blessed demise, I’d rather they continue to Rest In Peace – or even in Pieces…

  11. Nothing like being able to leave work, drop into a supply store at 4:30 and buy a piece of electronics to work on a weekend project.

    I might order most parts from China now, but that’s because the local shops stoped carrying anything interesting, or not way over priced.

    But, for the odd component to wrap up a project quickly it was convenient. They’re almost all gone now in my market, with much less available now that even 2 years ago.

  12. It still exists in Australia at a chain called Jaycar – It was a very old-time radio/electronics importer/dealer that was bought in the 70s by a guy named Gary Johnston, who’d seen Radio Shack (called Tandy here) and the local equivalent, Dick Smith Electrronics, move away from their hobbyist roots and wanted to restore them.
    These days they have 3D printers, plenty of Raspberry Pi etc and maker spaces as part of some of the stores.
    It isn’t Fry’s (which I visited once in the 90s) but it’s very handy to have in walking distance, as I do.

    1. Gary Johnston worked for Dick Smith before buying Jaycar. Dick Smith sold his electronics chain to Woolworths in the 1980s. Under Woolworths the Dick Smith business was allowed a lot of autonomy and was very successful in their niche until the early 2000s, long after Gary had departed to his rival business. Eventually though the Woolworths overlorad tried to move into the home appliances market, which was already very saturated at the time. This removed the last of Jaycar’s competition, and they have hung on in the hobbyist market. They have done a good job of embracing Arduino, though they did royally screw Freetronics in the process.

  13. The inspiration conversation resonated with me, too.

    I miss Fry’s. I miss the Radio Shack of my youth. I miss the big electronics-and-miscellaneous-hardware surplus in the bad part of town.

    I still have my stash of mostly dead circuit boards for a little inspiration at times. I tend to make stuff from scraps, castoffs, trash so rarely throw away anything.

    I have very little, or less interest in virtual reality, but this subject makes me wonder if a virtual version of a traditional store would have similar effects to our olden-times browsing experience.

    Having said that, I doubt a seller would see the value on putting together such a thing. Probably would be a community built experience. Without physical constraints, i wonder how one would go about merchandising a virtual store.

    Maybe a commercial enterprise, say Amazon, or AliExpress might take an interest in VR merchandising if ad placement generated sufficient additional revenue.

    1. “I have very little, or less interest in virtual reality, but this subject makes me wonder if a virtual version of a traditional store would have similar effects to our olden-times browsing experience.”

      Put it on Second Life. :-)

  14. I think there’s a parallel train of thought regarding the old printed catalogs from places like Digi-Key and Mouser. Sure, using the online tools we can find things much faster these days. We can easily sort and filter, narrowing the search picking among many desired (and undesired) parameters.

    But there’s still benefit to picking up the DK catalog and physically browsing the pages. I think I could really speed up a parts search often times if I just had a catalog to flip through and herd me in the right direction. Sometimes you might not even know what to call something, just that it probably belongs in section XYZ. Of course this assumes a well organized catalog.

    I wouldn’t call this kind of browsing a creative exercise as has been discussed regarding the brick and mortar stores. Looking at the real thing on display is on a whole different level than a tiny black and white sketch of the part on onion paper. But I think it is a “thing” and I sure wish they would bring back the paper catalogs — although not with as aggressively as in the past. New quarterly catalogs aren’t necessary in this context. Their value isn’t that they are 100% complete or have all the latest prices — for that we can use the online tools. I’d even pay for such catalogs if they were offered again.

    1. I love the printed catalogs for getting a quick overview of which component values are common. On parametric search it is hard to find out, say, what resistor values in which form factors are normal, and where they become boutique components with single digit quantities in real life. Or capacity/voltage combinations for a given capacitor series.

  15. In the late 70’s and early 80’s RS was awesome for this kid that had just discovered electronics. Being poor, most of my parts were scavenged: wire from old telephone cords, caps/resistors from old electronics (TVs, Radios, some still of the tube variety). But some things had to be bought (cases, solderless bread boards, tools/supplies, LEDs, and modern electronics). And there was a RS within bike distance for me (I can still remember one trip in the summer where I nearly passed out in the store from heatstroke, such was my determination to get there). RS also had ads at the time that had a components section, so you could see what was new before going to the store (think Sears Xmas toy catalog, but better), but rummaging and seeing stuff in your hand was the key to inspiration. RS was expensive, but didn’t have shipping costs and min-buys like the mail order stores, so evened out for someone on a very limited budget. I never faulted for them being expensive, people just don’t realize just how expensive brick and mortar is to sustain.

    They even had some sophisticated stuff for the era. My favorite chips were the phenom chip (to make a speech synth) and a bucket brigade analog delay line where I learned about sample rates and aliasing (both successful projects for me, I won’t mention all the unsuccessful ones). They also had PCB etching supplies (my first PC boards were etched using nail polish as the resist).

    There were other stores near me but not in biking distance (Lafayette, they were mostly high? end audio but had a components section, first to go ch8), and Heath Kit (they had kits but so expensive to be unobtanium for me, but they also had the blister pack parts).

    Later, magazines were the source of my inspiration with a lot of smaller surplus and electronics stores that had better component selections and prices. Unfortunately there have been a slew of on-line closures of late that are disheartening (All Electronics being the latest I’ve seen).

    One note of RS trivia: Tandy (a leather goods company) owned Radio Shack which was an odd pairing. I only know this because my older sister went thru a ’70s induced leather working phase and I remember going to the Tandy store with her (no where near a Radio Shack, but right next to the Heath Kit store, so I could get a ride there).

  16. On the topic of inspiration, I still have fond memories of wandering the aisles of Wacky Willy’s during a rainy Portland afternoon or weekend. So many “ah, just what I need to build x!” moments..

  17. Here in Australia I am glad we have Jaycar. They are what Dick Smith was except with all the modern stuff like microcontrollers and renewable energy gear (that’s not surprising though, Jaycar was founded by an ex Dick-Smith guy).

    When I was doing an electronics project a while back it was so good to be able to just walk into Jaycar and buy the bits I needed (breadboard, ATTiny microcontroller, LEDs, programmer for the ATTiny, cheap basic multimeter, a little module to turn USB power into the power for the ATTiny and some other stuff) and not have to worry about shipping costs on the many tiny orders I made over the course of the project or having to wait for packages to arrive.

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