Retro Tandy Handheld Games : Whatever Happened To Radio Shack?
At the tail end of the end of the mall era, one retail lich belatedly heaved its labored last. Radio Shack finally closed, after filing chapter 11 in 2015. The general public reacted as if they had just discovered that Yahoo is still in business (which it is, by the way): “How has it lived this long?” It was even like a prophecy in their previous year’s Superbowl commercial:
Only the first half of that prophecy became fulfilled. There just wasn’t any new Radio Shack. The 80s took their store back… and kept it. But it’s important to sift through the wreckage of the once-iconic retailer, because it teaches us important lessons about capitalism, culture, and especially society’s relationship with STEM geeks.
You see, your Humble Author has been a proud member of the STEM community since before people called it that. And my response, along with many other geeks’ responses, to the closing of Radio Shack was to climb onto its grave and tell it the same kind of message Tyler Durden delivered to Wall Street bankers.
Now, if you’re out of this loop, you must be asking, “What, Radio Shack? I thought geeks loved that place!” Yes… emphasis on “loved,” past tense. There’s a lot of business articles on why Radio Shack closed, but they all miss an important detail.
Radio Shack Was Once Geek Valhalla
Radio Shack was first founded in 1921, just shy of a century ago, with the first store in Boston, Massachusetts. This put it in the lap of the Roaring Twenties and Harvard University, just down the street from MIT – much more important to what would become called “hacker culture.” The first tech geeks played with radio, being HAM radio hobbyists, hence the name.
There Radio Shack stayed until it was bought up in 1963 by a Texas leather retailer with a company name of “Tandy.” What a Texas leather company was doing jumping into the technology market is still anybody’s guess. It wasn’t long after that that they sold their first electronic handheld calculator, just a couple years into the start of consumer-level electric calculator history. Texas, if you can believe it now, was once a “Silicon Prairie” tech center too, home to Dell, Inc., Texas Instruments, and AT&T.
In 1977 came the almighty milestone of computing history, the TRS-80. Affectionately called the “Trash 80,” it was one of the earliest home computers available. The TRS-80 is worth a whole post on its own someday, but suffice to say it’s still revered, its launch was concurrent with the earliest issues of Dr. Dobb’s Journal, and its operating system was designed in response to Microsoft founder Bill Gates writing a very, very angry letter. The TRS-80’s TinyBASIC system was built with the reasoning that if you write an operating system and give it away for free, nobody has to steal it.
Was that what Bill Gates wanted? No, that was the opposite of what he wanted; he wanted to make money writing operating systems and selling them. Thus began the first salvo of the Desktop Wars, of which I am a front-trench veteran and my battle scars are exhibited here for your gruesome fascination.
The Point Is That Radio Shack Picked The Hacker’s Side
Even though the TRS-80 series, up to Model 4, only stuck around until the mid-80s, Radio Shack threw its lot firmly in with the STEM geeks.
“You got questions? We got answers!” That was their motto. Motherboards, breadboards, circuit parts, soldering irons? Yep, all right here. Radio Shack is still remembered as the “iconic store of the Maker movement.” Bought my first computer programming language manual there in 1983:
Hey, if the Godfather of science fiction, Isaac Asimov, touted the TRS-80, you knew it had to be good:
But we’ll not dwell on the Tandy’s place in vintage computing history today. The point is that along with marketing to the home computer market, Radio Shack was a wonderland of electronic toys of every description:
Radio Shack Was Also Santa’s Electronic Workshop
This era is the beloved, friendly Radio Shack, the one that drew every kid visiting the mall in the 1980s into its blinkenlights embrace. Check the Radio Shack catalog archive and look over the catalogs and non-embeddable TV commercial videos there.
Early handheld electronic games were very limited. They were noisy, primitive by any standard today, and powered by gobbling fistfuls of batteries for a few hours’ play at a time. They were also constantly innovative, or at least if they couldn’t build it, they would license it from another game company and slap their Tandy logo on it anyway.
Sports games were a standard, of course. Tandy’s Championship Football version was not that different from others in the genre:
Every now and then Tandy got hold of a minor hit. Caveman was a well-beloved classic:
These games all look primitive to our modern eyes, but back then, if you found one in your Christmas stocking, you officially had yourself a gnarly Christmas. Kids took them to school to show off. They played them at bus stops and McDonald’s. Young whippersnappers now complain about too much DLC pay-to-play on their consoles, but back in *MY* day, we had four different kinds of Pong! It was awesome!
You have to remember this was well before the era of mobile phones, before even the Nintendo Game Boy (released in 1989). Can you smell the dinosaur coming? The one that was going to stomp Radio Shack’s eggs? Here is Radio Shack at the end of the ’80s:
Sensing some desperation there? Almost like single-game handhelds were for ol’ grandpa rather than the kids, who would be busy swapping cartridges in their Game Boy around the corner.
Oh How The Mighty Have Fallen!
Radio Shack was already rebranding itself “the technology store,” but it was learning a painful lesson right about then: Technology has a short shelf life. At the beginning of the 1980s, the best home game console was the Atari 2600. By the middle of the 1980s, it was the Nintendo NES. By the beginning of the 1990s, it was the SNES.
Let’s look at that in pictures:
Radio Shack stores were mostly crowded into malls. One problem with a mall location is that you have a small amount of floor space. This prevents you from housing large amounts of stock. If corporate sent you a case of gizmos to move, and they didn’t sell, they became one more dusty box in the back room. By 1990, Radio Shack had had enough. Once the industry leader, it found itself shoved into the margins by Apple, IBM, and Microsoft on the home computer front, and by the great Japanese invasion on the gadget front.
That’s when Radio Shack management sold its soul to Cthulhu, drank the Kool-Aid, and went on its Scarface-proportions downward spiral. The solution to all its problems, it decided, was phones, PHONES, PHOOOONES!
We all love our mobile phones, but there’s one demographic they exclude: STEM geeks. Hackers, makers, doers, people who get stuff done using technology. Those of us who use computers to make things still need laptops and desktops. We still need soldering irons and circuitry to build stuff. We still have to write and design and program, none of which is efficiently accomplished on a pocket-sized screen with an on-screen keyboard.
Radio Shack mutated into The Shack:
See what’s wrong with this picture? There’s no toys. Not only that, there’s no customers. If you were a hacker / maker / STEM geek / any kind of tinker whose favorite show was Mythbusters, and set foot in a Radio Shack any time after about 1995 or so, you were met with a completely transformed store. Not only that, but you would actually get chased out of the place if you dared to ask for cables, computer peripherals, tools, software, books, anything but an overpriced phone plan or their overpriced batteries.
Radio Shack got slaughtered in the phone market. And the harder it took a pounding through the 1990s and 2000s, the more it doubled down. It got meaner and meaner. Store employees (who filed class action lawsuits against the company later for its rotten treatment) took out their frustration on the hobbyists who formed their core market for some seventy years. It was all out fault! So get out of here, we’re selling phones now!
You’d have to imagine if you grew up with Willy Wonka and then one day he blew up the factory, shot all the Oompah Loompahs, quit selling candy, and started stocking stores exclusively with 900 varieties of castor oil. And then squatted like that bellowing at you in rage because you weren’t buying his overpriced crap. That was what watching Radio Shack’s decline was like.
In the final years, Radio Shack tried to correct course and start setting up hobbyist kiosk huts, trying to make up with the geeks. But it was too late now. None of us would speak to Radio Shack by then if they were giving stuff away.
A More Innocent Time
Perhaps the mobile phone is the forbidden apple that killed retail. Sure, nobody would buy a handheld game now except as a novelty or for the nostalgia value. But had Radio Shack simply been a bit more patient, it would have survived as a downscaled version of its former self. We still have hackers, makers, tinkerers, and STEMers today. We just have nowhere to shop but online now. But we do have a computer store in every major city.
Wal-Mart and Target still have an electronics section. Can you imagine, geeks looking more favorably on Wal-Mart in comparison to Radio Shack?
Radio Shack is far from the only retail store to die in the modern global boutique economy. The Great Retail Apocalypse hit dozens of longstanding corporations, even Sears. Either way, Radio Shack was probably just as doomed as any of the other dinosaurs trying to claw their way out of the 21st century retail tar pit. They just didn’t have to be so nasty about it.