Farewell, Radio Shack, and Farewell to the Twentieth Century

Illustration for article titled Farewell, Radio Shack, and Farewell to the Twentieth Century

Last year, the Radio Shack in my neighborhood burned to the ground. We waited months for it to be rebuilt, and at last (joy!) it was — now I can walk up the street and buy weird connector cables and Arduino kits again. Unfortunately, Radio Shack the company isn't doing quite as well. In fact, it's about to go bankrupt.


Indeed, it's likely that my local Radio Shack will become a Sprint store sometime soon. Or maybe even an Amazon store.

Radio Shack has been in decline for several years, and today the New York Stock Exchange announced they would delist the failing company's stock. Rumors are swirling about Radio Shack's impending bankruptcy [UPDATE: the store has now officially filed for bankruptcy], and its plans to sell up to half its 4,000 retail outlets to another company. So what will your local Radio Shack turn into? The most plausible hypothesis is Sprint, which is aiming to expand its retail locations and sells its wares in Radio Shack already.

According to a report from Bloomberg, which got its information from unnamed insiders:

The locations sold to Sprint would operate under the wireless carrier's name, meaning RadioShack would cease to exist as a stand-alone retailer, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the talks aren't public.

The negotiations could still break down without a deal being reached, or the terms could change. Sprint and RadioShack also have discussed co-branding the stores, two of the people said. It's also possible that another bidder could emerge that would buy RadioShack and keep it operating, the people said. The Chinese backers who took the Brookstone chain out of bankruptcy, Sanpower Group, also have been in discussions about bidding for RadioShack assets, one person familiar with the talks said.

USA Today suggested that Amazon might also be in talks to turn some of the Radio Shack stores into "showrooms" for tech sold by the online retail giant. (According to Ars Technica, Radio Shack is not currently confirming any of these rumors.)

Radio Shack is meeting the fate of many other stores that were wildly popular in the twentieth century, including record stores, comic book stores, bookstores and video stores. Like Radio Shack, these kinds of retail outlets weren't just places to buy things. They were often unintentional community spaces, where enthusiasts could meet up to chat and learn new things about their geeky passions. Back in the 1980s, you could learn how to add memory cards to your PC in a Radio Shack. Or you could meet people from your local Mac User Group.


Here's a 1980s ad for Tandy Computers, which sold PCs through Radio Shack. The pitchman is Bill Bixby, AKA 1970s Hulk!

Millions of nerdy kids who grew up in the 1980s could only find the components they needed at local Radio Shacks, and the stores were like a lifeline to a better world where everybody understood computers. But Radio Shack's history goes deeper than that. In the 1920s and 30s, when Radio Shack was young, a much earlier generation of nerds swarmed into these tiny shops to talk excitedly about building radios and other transmission devices. You might say that Radio Shack helped define gadget culture for four generations, from radio whizzes up to smartphone dorks.

Radio Shack tried to bridge the gap into the twenty-first century by carrying Arduino kits and components in some of their stores — and hiring Weird Al to be their pitchman. For non-hobbyists, they had toys, smartphones, headsets, and things like MP3 recorders that only a journalist would really care about (but we REALLY care). Still, what's killing them is the same thing that killed my local science fiction bookstore. People can buy this stuff online — and they can find the communities that these stores once fostered online too. If I want to geek out about science fiction or Arduino, I can chat with commenters on io9 or Gizmodo or hundreds of other online forums. I don't need a local store anymore.


The sad thing is that the companies in line to gobble up Radio Shack's retail outlets are the antithesis of community-creating environments. I've spend some of the most hellish moments of my life in Sprint stores. Nobody ever finds friends or gets good tech advice in a mobile provider retail outlet. I mean, maybe you make really elaborate, high-tech plans about how to destroy them — and that's creative. That's something.

But it's not community.



The truth is that Radio Shack lost it's way a long time ago. While they tried to expand into a more consumer friendly space like Best Buy, they didn't have the real estate to support the new business model. Best Buy wins in the consumer space. Frys & Micro Center are king of the consumer/geek space.