by Henry Briggs
The other day, I needed to replace the power cable for a piece of video gear. One end had a three-pronged “male,” the other a three-pronged “female.”
In times past, I would have motored down to my local Radio Shack. One of the staff would have walked me over to the right rack and pointed to the right cable.
We might have chatted about … whatever. Then, while tapping away at the register he or she would have tried to sell me a pack or two of spare batteries. I would have bought a pack (you never know when you’ll need a battery, you know) and paid $10 bucks or so for both.
But this day was different because, sad to say, Radio Shacks have folded up and faded into history over the last few years, yet another victim of Amazon and the internet.
Radio Shack was named after those little shacks on ships that housed early radio equipment. It was started in 1921 by Theodore and Milton Deutschmann, who wanted to cash in on the newest craze: ham (amateur) radio.
It is said that on April 15, 1912, a Russian immigrant named David Sarnoff was in the radio “shack” of the Manhattan Wanamaker’s, one of the first department stores (and also long gone), when he saw telegraph chatter from the ships rescuing Titanic survivors. Sarnoff told the world and became famous, later going on to found NBC.
I looked up “power cable” on the internet. Amazon popped up with several, priced from $7.99 to $9.99. I could have tapped a few keys, sat on my bumpkin and had it in a few days.
Thing is, I didn’t want it in a few days. I wanted it now. Plus, to me Amazon is like the lion and the elephant combined: it eats everything that crosses its path and remembers everything else. I’m more of a “protect Bambi” type.
So I got in the car and drove down to my local hardware store.
The guy there was fascinated.
“Wow! Haven’t seen one of these in years.” (The power cable was only a few years old.)
He looked in several aisles and came close, but no luck. I told him Amazon carried it, but I’m not a fan. He gave me a silent thumbs up and suggested an electrical supply store 15 minutes away. No luck there either.
Then, I thought, “Hey, I think there’s a store like that a few miles from here. They call it “The Shack” or “Shack” because they’re not allowed to use the full Radio Shack name.”
Twenty minutes later, I turned into a “Dollar” type mall, and there it was, not “The Shack” or “Shack” but “Radio Shack” – a crisp and clean original logo.
Call me Marty and my ride a Delorean.
I walked in, fascinated. There were the familiar racks full of gadgets and spare parts. The saleswoman had the power cable in my hands in, maybe, 30 seconds. I told her I thought Radio Shacks were long gone. She said there are about 300 (up from 70 in 2017) and growing but slowly. They’re franchises now. She and her husband bought this one recently.
“We’re opening another about 10 miles away … a pack of spare batteries?”
“Oh … sure. One, please.”
In a way, malls got what they deserved. The first enclosed mall was built in 1956 in Minneapolis. Soon after, they became ubiquitous, sucking customers out of small towns. Except in affluent areas (that’s you Ardmore, Bryn Mawr, Wayne and Malvern), town centers are history.
What malls did to small towns, Amazon is doing to malls.
But Amazon is more. It isn’t just swallowing retail; it’s also swallowing data. And people. Sure it’s efficient; where else can you get 10 different things in one box delivered to your door in a day or two? But there’s a human toll, too. Amazon records every price inquiry, every birthday wish, everything you buy. They know what you like and don’t like. How much you spend and where you keep your money, how many kids you have and where they are, your friends and family, your bank. They use that data and sell it for billions.
I went to three stores that employ around 20 people at a lot more than $15 per hour. I met some new people. Not people performing robotic tasks in unseen warehouses or actual robots, but real people.
It was fun. And I got my cable in an hour, not a day or two.
And some spare batteries, just in case.
Henry Briggs is a retired radio producer who lives in Malvern and writes freelance opinion pieces.