RadioShack, Ave Atque Vale

Never did I think I would devote a blog entry to the demise of a company, but here I am.  I very rarely follow business news, but the news that RadioShack filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy yesterday actually managed to penetrate my bubble.

Wikipedia even leads off its entry for RadioShack with this:

RadioShack Corporation (formerly Tandy Corporation) is a bankrupt American electronics retail franchise. Founded in 1921, its stores operate in the United States, as well as parts of Europe, South America and Africa. The chain left Australia in 2002 and Canada in 2004. The headquarters of RadioShack is located in downtownFort Worth, Texas. On February 5, 2015, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection due to 11 consecutive quarterly losses.

I feel the loss of RadioShack with none of the schadenfreude I experienced with the fall of Enron or Lehman Brothers.  I think it was because RadioShack fed my intense interest in audio recording (using magnetic iron oxide tape, of course–a medium I still love and use), and my fledgling and short-lived interest in computers.

Mostly, when I spent money at RadioShack, it was for blank cassettes, or even blank reel-to-reel tapes (for the bulky Webcor Viscount IV machine my uncle had given me).  The tapes were not to an audiophile’s liking, but they were much better quality (and not as likely to break or get wrapped up in the machine’s capstan and pinch rollers) than the three-for-$.69 tapes you could buy at gas stations.  Those tapes were about as reliable as the condoms you could buy in the men’s room, and just as likely to break at the worst possible time.

Since I had a stereo store on my newspaper route, I knew better than to buy stereo equipment at RadioShack, even if I could afford it.  I had learned at the stereo store that Realistic was not even in the ballpark when it came to brands like Pioneer, Sansui, or Tandberg.  (I occasionally indulged in buying Memorex tapes at the stereo store, convinced of their superior quality by the commercials of Ella Fitzgerald’s recorded voice hitting high C and shattering a wine glass.)

If you bought a stereo system at RadioShack, you were definitely playing in the minor leagues, or were too cheap or broke to go anywhere else.  If you needed a car stereo, the place to go in the Mid-Ohio Valley was Bobier Electronics or Auto Sound and Security in Parkersburg.  Both of these companies flooded the FM airwaves with their ads.

And then, in the early 1977, RadioShack debuted the TRS-80.  I first saw one at a friend’s house about a year later, when I had gone there to play chess.  The computer was in its own room, almost like some kind of weird Holy of Holies.  Other than some three-ring binders and the manual, there was no other media in the room.  RadioShack would not make a model with floppy disks for another year, so programs came on audio cassettes which plugged into the computer.

I had to keep my own computer experience on the down low, at least from my father and stepmother.  I often sneaked into the various computer labs on the Marietta College campus to play on their terminals, although I was very conscientious to yield my machine to anyone who needed one.  In the mid-1970s, the college had a PDP-11 system, most of which connected to slow Western Union teletypewriters, all of which printed in all capital letters on long rolls of foolscap.  At first, I had taken the quick introductory courses to operating the machine, but then I learned the Star Trek game (which operated in BASIC), in which you’re in command of the Enterprise and have to save the galaxy by destroying x number of Klingons in so many stardates with three or four starbases at your disposal.  There were no graphics to the game: <*> represented the Enterprise, +++ was a Klingon, * was a star, and >!< was a starbase.

The TRS-80 was such a hit that, by my senior year of high school, the library at Marietta High School had one machine.  You could sign up for 15-minute slots, and there was always a fully booked waiting list.  Unless you were a true computer geek (and when I was in high school, anyone who had even heard the word geek knew it as a carnival performer who would do things like eat live animals and bite the heads off chickens and snakes), it was usually to play games.  The most unusual program I saw, and one I have never seen since, would display Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” in capital letters, and eventually falling snowflakes would fill the screen.

RadioShack managed to cover dual ground: The literary crowd and the technophiles.

RadioShack managed to cover dual ground: The literary crowd and the technophiles.

I enjoyed RadioShack’s TV ads, especially when they ended with “only at RadioShack, a Tandy company.”  I thought at first that it was a variation of the word dandy, but I learned Tandy was their parent company (ticker symbol TLF) when my friend’s father considered buying stock so they could get a discount when buying more and more accessories for the TRS-80.  I hope his dad didn’t follow through with this, because RadioShack stock achieved junk bond status in 2012.

Even though I think eight-track tapes are the product of the Antichrist, I will share this TV ad:

My first prolonged exposure to computers was when I took the typesetting job at The Harvard Crimson.  Although I reveled in knowing printers’ and typesetters’ jargon, I was fascinated by spending hours in front of a screen seeing green letters march across the monitor as I typed them.  By the end of my job there, I was beginning to agree with our shop foreman, who at least once a week threatened to quit unless The Crimson went back to Linotype machines and flatbed presses.

During my 18 months in Boston, I was a bridesmaid but never a bride when it came to computers.  In the Harvard Coop, I looked at the Timex Sinclair computers, the only model for sale under $100, but realized even then that I’d be unable to type on it.  The keys weren’t much bigger than the fingernail on my pinkie.  And I did not own a TV at the time.  Also, one afternoon I tagged along with one of the senior editors who was about to begin work on his honors thesis, and was going to Toys “R” Us to buy a Coleco Adam, which was supposed to be the model for the non-computer savvy user who only wanted a machine for writing.  (He opted not to buy it, which was good, because the Coleco Adam was the New Coke of the computer market.)

In the 1980s, what I remembered most about RadioShack was filling out my name and address on a form every time I went in to buy something, so I could get their catalog in the mail.  I heard this was universal, whether you went in to buy a complete home entertainment system or a $.50 resister.  The sales people (almost all male) varied from earnest young men with long-sleeved dress shirts and ties in solid colors, trying to sell a product with all the zeal of the newly converted (probably because the bulk of their paychecks came from commission) to middle-aged men with wrinkled white shirts and bulging bellies, most of whom wore wide ties.  (No one wore outlandish neckties, like with Tweety or Mr. Potato Head on them, although one salesperson in the downtown Columbus store wore one with part of Romans 1:16–“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes”–emblazoned in cartoon letters of various sizes and fonts.)

During the 1990s, my reason for going to RadioShack was to either buy cassettes or cassette mailers.  The latter was because I corresponded frequently with several friends by means of taped letters, and these were the safest and most convenient way to mail them.

The last thing I bought at RadioShack was my Olympus VN-7100, a digital voice recorder.  I bought it at the store on N. High St., near the OSU campus.  I had heard rumors for years that RadioShack was going to tank, but actually seeing that this has happened is a little sad.


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