Closing Time

Fry's Electronics Palo Alto
The party’s over, it’s time to call it a day

Fry’s Electronics is dead.

This is quite literately matricide, the industry it suckled and nurtured killed it.

For those of you not in the know, if Silicon Valley was the epicenter of the tech explosion, Fry’s was the epicenter of Silicon Valley. It’s iconic stores, each decked out in an outlandishly silly individual design theme (Wild West, Aztec Temple, 50’s Sci Fi, etc) were the go to place for the equipment the people who created the new world we live in. Beyond being an electronics store, it was a clubhouse for geeks and nerds who wandered it’s aisles filled with components, computer hazari, almost porn men’s magazines, and enough junk food to fuel an all night coding jag.

If you couldn’t find what you needed there you went home and invented it.

My first exposure to the geek underground was in a Fry’s. Told by my brother in law it was the place to go for the add on component I needed for my Apple IIC “portable” computer (it had a handle on the case so you could carry it around — along with the CRT monitor) I ventured into the voluminous Old West themed Palo Alto store, buried deep in an anonymous industrial park on a side street that if you blinked you missed. Once you got past the hitching posts outside the door and the statue of a cowboy being bucked off his horse by the customer service counter you gazed out onto the new west’s version of the endless prairie, aisles upon aisles of electronic components, anything a computer jockey could ever need. In those days it was not uncommon to find a shopper pushing a grocery cart filled with every small or large widget needed to complete your own home brew computer. 

After finding everything you needed and having scanned the magazine aisle for half an hour (they carried not only computer related mags and almost porn, but every magazine then being published) you would stand on a line that stretched for what seemed like blocks to make your purchase. In the final stretch the aisle became crowded with junk food, a concession to the owners’ father who came out of the grocery industry and insisted they sell some food products “as a fall back”. A person stood at the front of the line and would point to one of the 30 cash registers lined up like a bureaucrat’s wet dream and off you would go to hand over your credit card. Incongruously for a store brimming with Old West memorabilia the registers were always manned by Indians. A few Pakistanis mixed in, but mostly Indians.

The first time I heard of this thing called Google was standing in that line and overhearing two Stanford students talking about how much better the campus search engine was than Yahoo. That kind of info gathering was the primary reason for going to Fry’s even though you weren’t there to buy components. There was more tech being spoken in those aisles than anywhere else in the world. Those older well dressed gentlemen wandering the networking equipment aisles weren’t there predatorily searching for young men with a big thing, they were looking for young men with the next big thing. Rumor had it venture capitalists paid big finder’s fees to salespeople who overheard something while replenishing the stacks of 8 bit motherboards.

Amazingly, incredibly, Fry’s was late to the e-tailing world.  Just like Sears with clothing and B. Daltons with books, Fry’s hesitated to get involved with selling over the internet. They could have kept Amazon at e-bay had they not insisted that customers needed to come into the store to buy their desired product. Instead the very companies Fry’s outfitted made them a dinosaur.

And now they are extinct.

As a convenient cover, the owners are blaming COVID, but the reality is the Palo Alto store was closed in December 2019 and in fact from what had once been a chain of 31 stores there were only 5 left when this morning’s notice was posted. Some will say the dot com bust of 2001 that forced the company to start selling appliances, TVs, and other consumer electronics was the end of the “real” Fry’s. In truth yes, in the last 20 years you were more likely to run into the mom who lives next door searching for a kid’s video game than the next Sergey Brin, but there were still some aisles that were just for the tech geeks; interlopers ventured into those spaces at their own risk. Manufacturer reps could still be found regularly prowling the aisles to see what consumers were stopping to gawk at. The magazine aisle was replaced with a magazine rack, but those magazines were the ones the tech crowd really wanted to read. And if you could find one there were still a few salesmen who could walk you through your project specs, suggest what you needed, dismiss what you didn’t, and give you a pretty good idea if you were on to potentially the next big thing. Or they could sigh deeply, point a finger, and say “Aisle 48” when you asked for a DVD cleaning kit.

A while back they pretty much stopped all their advertising but when meeting new people I’d get a true idea of how long they had lived in the Bay Area by quizzing them with “Finish the slogan…Your best buys….”.

If they answered “are always at Fry’s” I knew they were good people. Guaranteed.


Shapiro Out

One thought on “Closing Time

  1. The Aztec store, West Thinderbird Rd Phoenix AZ, is within walking distance of my house. I have been there often. I have built PCs from components. Not lately, and I don’t know the CPU and RAM specs anymore. That Fry’s is a sad place. I have been there three times in the past three years and I am amazed at how much nothing is there. They use cases of water bottles to fill shelf space. And it’s not enough to create an illusion of product. Peek into their back room storage rack space and it’s empty. The floor is shiny and polished at midday because nobody is walking over it. I don’t understand the economics of why it is open. It clearly has had negative cash flow for years.

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