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Radio Shack

Pictured, clipped from the online archives at JG-TC.com, is this segment of a larger Radio Shack ad from the March 29, 1990, Journal Gazette, the last one I could find that ever ran in the paper.

Talk about full circle; on my way to the JG-TC offices a week ago I noticed, in the early morning fog, a big crane lowering a giant red "R" onto the outside wall of the formerly-known-as-Sears, formerly-known-as-K-Mart, end of the Cross County Mall. A dangerous feat to be sure, but hey, anything to keep the new store from being called "ural King."

I couldn't help but think of when I watched the exact same alphabetical feat in reverse a few years ago when the Radio Shack finally shut its doors for good. If you weren't there to see it, as I was, let's start with this ad from the March 29, 1990, Journal Gazette -- what is, according to our archives at www.jg-tc.com, the last ever Radio Shack ad to make it to newsprint. Just for the record, I actually still own the “Spelling Ace” you see on the bottom right. No lie, it’s within reaching distance of the very keyboard I’m typing this on. I know my parents bought it for me to help with my dismal spelling abilities when I was in school, but I probably used it more to clear the "code breaking" challenges from my beloved "Sid Meier's Covert Action" PC game.

When I informed my dad that the Shack here in town had finally called it quits after teetering on the rim of bankruptcy for a few years, I could see the pained expression on his face; for he knew he missed his chance to run in there and pick up entire drawers full of transistors and transformers and even the metal cabinets themselves for cost. When I asked just what in the world he could possibly ever need those things for, he only said, in classic dad-fashion, “Hey, you never know. You can’t buy that stuff anywhere else.”

Doesn’t that say it all? Dads loved Radio Shack, and Radio Shack loved dads; and while I’m not a dad, I am my father’s son after all, so when I found out the Radio Shack was closing, I knew I should give it one last look. As long as I’ve been alive, it’s always been there. I remember being a little kid and playing with a Tandy-brand electronic game they had on display and then being wracked with guilt the rest of that weekend thinking the entire store was going to be engulfed in a 9-volt powered ball of fire because I didn't turn the game off before my parents yanked me away from it by my ear.

But I’m telling you I really dragged my feet on making that last trip; for what reason I can’t tell you. I mean, there wasn’t anything I really needed to buy to memorialize the occasion, but yeah, just like my old man, I couldn’t quite help but feel this pull…almost as if there was something there I just had to have and this would be my last chance. So, one afternoon, off I went, making my final trek to the Shack.

It was pretty bleak. Probably was to be expected -- I mean I didn’t bother to drag on in until the next to the very last day, but still, I just wasn’t expecting so much…emptiness.

I was actually kind of glad that there were a couple customers already in there looking around and providing cover for me, because I remember when I went into Radio Shack just after their bankruptcy announcement and the dude behind the counter (understandably) gave me a little bit of passive aggressive sass ("Thanks for stopping by!") when I came in, looked around, and then split without buying anything.

Like I said, there wasn’t much left. I made my way to the back right corner of the store, the former repository for some of their weirder retro tech that you wouldn’t think any place but Radio Shack would have any more. If there was anything I was thinking of picking up for a very generous 90 percent discount, then it was going to be a cassette player, a wristband am/fm radio or a maybe even a good old fashioned weather station. Sadly, they were all gone by this point. That entire corner was picked clean.

Well, not entirely clean; I ended up poking around a few racks of audio system components and managed to snag a really long headphone cord, one with the old fashioned “big” input jack at one end, so I could live out my eternal dream of being able to stand anywhere in Castle Clint while still tethered into my vintage Pioneer stereo receiver.

About that moment I started to get a sad “picking at the carcass” feeling, probably urged on by a customer at the counter who was clearly buying things just to buy them because they were discounted. How would I know this? Well, she had to ask what every single thing she was buying actually was. And then to top of it off, as the guy behind the counter rang up her final purchase, she even had the common kindness to say (several times) “Well…I guess this means you guys are all out of jobs, right?”

Now, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt; I’m sure she meant it in a friendly way, but still…I could tell from the muted reaction of everyone behind the counter that that was probably the hundredth time they had heard that one that day alone.

They handled it well enough. After all, it being their last day they could have told her to go straight to you–know-where, since you can’t double-lose your job. Still, like I said, they were total professionals. I’ve been there; corner me sometime and I’ll tell you the experiences of working in one of those seasonal calendar kiosks right around the last week of December.

So I placed a put-it-together-yourself kit for a random number generator the size of a Rubik’s Cube back on the hook, took my headphone cord up to the counter, and made my purchase Soup-Nazi style: no chatting, no small talk, and no witty banter about the store closing. I just handed them my two bucks, they gave me my cord and a receipt, I gave them a friendly nod, and exited stage right; back out into the mall, knowing that I’d never ever go back to the Mattoon Radio Shack again. Well, other than a day later when I went back to watch folks in coveralls on a ladder unfastening the big red "R" from the wall -- something I felt like I just had to see for some reason.

Probably a moral there somewhere. One store closes, another store opens, and even the most "menial" part of that process was seen and documented by someone. That's also a sign.

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"The Throwback Machine" is a weekly feature taking a look back at items of interest found in the JG-TC online archives. For questions, suggestions, or his "Song of the Day" recommendation, contact him at cwalker@jg-tc.com.

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