When I was a kid, it seemed to me that innovation began less in a garage than in a Shack.
I had a cordless telephone with an antenna that, in my memory at least, pulled out about four feet. If you carelessly walked through a doorway, you’d snap the antenna or, in the more spectacular moments, send the phone flying across the room. The phone would survive intact, but the antenna, not so much. Fortunately, that was back when you could repair personal electronics yourself. On an embarrassing number of weekends, I would ride my ten speed the couple of miles to what was this store of magical geekdom, Radio Shack, stuffed with toys and gadgets, cassette players, Betamax tapes and double-density floppy disks, wires and transistors, 101-in-One Electronics Project Kits and, yes, antennas that I could use to repair my phone all by myself. The place was a storehouse for imagination, creativity and innovation.
In seventh grade, my middle school installed a new computer center – two-dozen Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III computers. I took to programming lessons pretty well, with an exciting talent for coming up with different ways to scroll words. Uninspired by a BASIC-language text loop of my name (10 PRINT “MARK! ”; 20 GOTO 10,”), I discovered the “IF A THEN B” command and that the screen had coordinates. If INPUT was UP, then I could subtract one from x (“x = x-1”), and shift the word up one line. Mr. Clifford, my math teacher, characterized my distractedness as industriousness, and for my next birthday my parents gave me a 16K TRS-80 with a cassette drive, eventually upgraded in several waves to 64K, two disk drives, and enhanced graphics. A powerhouse.
That one day a week in the computer lab led to my text adventure game, “MIDEVIL.” When Mr. Clifford corrected my misspelling of medieval, I bluffed into a quick retort:the play on words was intentional. The game’s catch phrase became “Half way between honor and annihilation lies Mid-EVIL!” It was a serendipitous collision and pivot-point. I had no idea how to spell the word but the concept stuck, becoming the foundation of the game. Midevil became a class project. Classmates contributed plot ideas, and we made the letters in “EVIL” shake and explode across the screen.
One of my best friends soon got an Apple IIe. He mocked Radio Shack and, foreshadowing “I’m a Mac and I’m a PC” and iOS vs. Android, called my computer a “Trash-80.” Fighting words! The truth was that Radio Shack’s tools for everyman innovation were as essential to Apple as to the average radio hobbyist. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak created their first device– a box to let people steal long distance service – using parts from Radio Shack. I didn’t know that, but I nevertheless dug in my heels and stuck to my corner-store based ecosystem.
Years later I arrived at college lugging both a TRS-80 Model 4– a 30-pound “portable” version of that old Model III which closed up, had a handle and squeezed into a Delta L-1011’s overhead compartment– and a Model 100, the first true laptop and the last device coded personally by Bill Gates. The only other freshman in my dorm with a computer was showing off his brand-new Macintosh across the hall. I was already stuck in the past.He ended up with a degree in computer science and is now an executive with an international tech consulting firm in San Francisco. I became a lawyer.
At some point, Radio Shack stopped focusing on innovation – for either itself or its “maker” customers. The TRS-80 yielded the market to the PC in the late 1980s without much of a whimper, and BASIC vanished from home computers. Radio Shack could have pivoted into a modern big box retailer; a leader in consumer electronic repair like iFixIt or even a hobbyists mecca focused on the likes of 3-D printing, Arudino, and Raspberry Pi. Maybe it could have used its ubiquitous catalog and extensive customer list to evolve into a major online retailer a la Amazon. But the company stopped challenging itself to find new and better ways to do any of those things and ignored the advice of others on how to revive and improve the brand. On the rare occasion I went to Radio Shack it left me a bit sad. In its heyday, the store gave me the opportunity and tools to create. (Yes, that’s what we think a great coworking facility is about, too.) But Radio Shack declined into a dull retailer, selling only a limited number of overpriced electronics which weren’t quite what you wanted. Once the innovative spirit died, the community moved on, and all that was left was a retail zombie.
Not too long ago, my sister found and sent me my old, yellowed TRS-80 Model 4P. Hoping for a chance to show my kids what it was like to create something on the computer, I spent hours scrubbing away a quarter century of neglect, only to plug it in and discover that there was no boot disk. Radio Shack declared bankruptcy last week, and it’s not a reorganization. It’s too late. Like that boot disk,and my old bike, the innovator’s Radio Shack of the 1970s and 1980s has been long gone.