06 March 2007

Membership had its privileges

The Radio Shack Free Battery Club. Back in 9th grade it was the only club that would have me as a member! (I joined up just in time – numerous 'old timers' regaled me with stories of ugly hazing rituals involving pledges being forced to put their tongue on an entire case of 9-volt batteries)

It was a shrewd business strategy ... once a month you got a free battery, but more importantly it got you into your neighborhood Radio Shack store, where one typically walked out with more than their freebie. The battery wasn't much to speak of – what you got was a single 'basic' battery, the equivalent of the classic silver-label Eveready flashlight cells. Or as RS called 'em when I was younger, "New Formula." You didn't get an alkaline, sorry.

I've always wanted to put a couple of "9-lives" Eveready AA batteries into our digital camera and see if those old-school puppies could withstand just one flash. When I was little, those skinny things were called "penlight batteries", as the tiny flashlights were about all which took them before the Walkman was invented and brought the AA cell into the mainstream.

Yes, Talmadge Gleck was a faithful member. Starting in about 7th grade I was never without my prized Free Battery Club card. And I kept one well into my college years. Hell, maybe even into the '90s when they stopped doing it (about the time RS stopped selling the low-end batteries, instead concentrating on their ENERCELL green-label and gold alkalines).

Now, there wasn't much you could do with a single AA, C or D cell, but if you had a transistor radio whose power source was spent, and allowance time was days away, that card was worth its weight in WSGN solid gold. I'd head for my friendly local Rat Shack, pick up a 9-volt battery, whip out my card, get it punched, and I'd again have tunes.

It was good to feel wanted. For a budding radio and electronics geek like myself, Radio Shack was damn near heaven. It was staffed by geeks and it catered to geeks, completely oblivious to its taped-glasses, pocket-protector image. People like me used to count the days until each Fall day when ..... [fanfare of trumpets, chorus of angels singing from on high] .... THE NEW RADIO SHACK CATALOG CAME OUT!! Pages and pages and pages of audio gear, electronic gadgets, adapters, cables, patch cords, kits, those damned "FlavoRadios", yeeeeeeah! And the catalogs were free for the asking.

The look on my face on that near-Christmas day was probably akin to the way Seraphim looks each year when the new Wilton Cake Yearbook comes out.

Radio Shack had their own stable of proprietary 'house brands': REALISTIC, ARCHER, SCIENCE FAIR, DUOPHONE, JETSTREAM, OPTIMUS. And the Realistic audio gear, amazingly enough, held its own. I have an old circa late '80s Realistic AM/FM tuner/amp, one of those mini jobs, which I liberated several years ago from a thrift store for about five bucks. And the FM reception on that Realistic easily trumps the tuner of my 1999-vintage Technics receiver!

Needed a transistor, diode or resistor to complete an electronics project? Radio Shack was your place. Had a connection you needed to make? Rat Shack had every conceivable type of adapter with any type of connector you could want. Shortwave radios? Plenty to choose from, along with the antenna wire you'd need to run between trees in your backyard. Aspirations toward amateur radio operation? RS carried study materials for the FCC test.

I also had one of their Science Fair "200 in 1" electronics kits back in 9th grade. My friend Wiz and I built an AM transmitter with it, and faster than you could hit the vocal post on "Killing Me Softly", we were pirate broadcasters! Wheeeee!!!

I loved it all. When I walked into one of their stores I'd suddenly feel enveloped by .... comfort. Radio Shack was a Bed, Bath and Beyond for people like me.

Alas, I speak in past tense. Oh yeah, "Retard Shack" exists today, although, as with so many things, it's a faint shadow of what it used to be. It began in the ‘90s, when they began dropping the Realistic name, casting aside nearly all of their nameplates in favor of carrying overpriced, subpar Thomson Electronics (RCA) product. They began charging for the yearly catalog. And, as a stake to the heart, the battery club was shut down, leaving behind millions of social losers like myself, denying us our silent brotherhood, and that little card which validated us as real human beings. We belonged. By gawd, we BELONGED to something.

The final nail in the coffin was probably when Radio Shack discarded the decades-old "bullethole" logo in favor of that stupid 'circle-R' and turning their name into one word, ala late '80s DuranDuran. Image is everything and that logo spoke volumes: We're not geeks anymore. We're one of the popular people now.

Yeah, one can still get adapters and connectors at RS. Some. And they're all overpriced, gold-plated 'monster' type things. (I've found that gold is no better than silver when it comes to conducting signal. The real muscle is the thickness of the cable, at least from my experience) Lately, I've come to see Radio Shack – um, I mean RadioShack for what it is today: a smaller-scale over-priced deluded Best Buy wannabe.

This blogger summed it nicely: http://wooga.drbacchus.com/anything-from-radio-shack

The point was driven out of the park this morning when I stopped by one of our "ratshack" stores to see if they had a small adapter for the MP3 player setup in the car. I wanted something less convoluted than what I have now: a simple mini (1/8") female adapter to stereo RCA males.

RS didn't have it. They didn't even carry it. Worse yet, the woman who worked there did not know what I meant when I said 'male' and 'female.'

I also was looking for another optical digital cable for connecting the output of the DVD recorder in the music room directly into the Sony CD recorder, a setup I'm now able to achieve since moving the audio stack from against the wall by the door and to the left of the computer setup. After looking in the store's cluttered stock, I couldn't find it myself. So I asked.

The woman didn't know what the @#$% an "optical" cable was. Well, sumbitch.

Now I'm not throwing barbs toward those who don't know. I'm sure Seraphim couldn't tell you the difference between coaxial and optical-type digital cords. But Seraphim DOESN'T WORK AT FRIGGIN' RADIO SHACK, EITHER!!!

I left there feeling like somebody had died. It hit me that hard. 15-20-plus years ago, Radio Shack employed people who knew what they sold. Today, they don't know jackshit about their products. Yes, I know it's the same everywhere — Sears, for instance; when my Dad worked for Sears, Roebuck & Company, the salespeople KNEW THEIR PRODUCTS. Dad started out as a lowly paint salesman in Huntsville, Alabama, and in 1968 I'm certain he was an expert on Sears Weatherbeater brand Latex House Paint ("For great American homes ... like yours").

Today, both chains are hollow jokes of their former glories.

I guess it'll have to be Big Box – um, er, Best Buy for the optical cable. [snort] The Blue Polo Shirt People don't know this stuff, either. It's a good thing I can find their stuff myself.

What's a geek like myself to do?

I'd join a club, but Sam's only laughed in my face.

Ciao for niao.

--Talmadge "My FlavoRadio is Eggplant" Gleck

1 comment:

nettiemac said...

Sacrilege...... pure sacrilege. Transistor Hut, er Radio Shack, has truly gone to the dogs.

And for someone who works there NOT to know what male and female are (in relation to electronics) is .... sad, man.