You never know when a visit with an ailing old friend will be the last. And so it was on Monday. I received a text from home: We’re out of printer ink. I was out living some life offline out of the house after last week’s historic winter storm had cooped us up anyway, so a stop by my favorite electronics store was easy to work into a schedule I wasn’t even following.
I walked in through the giant piano door, by which I mean the store’s theme was music and its doorway was a gigantic piano. In its heyday, the store had an accomplished artist playing on a grand piano on weekends. You never knew what you’d hear in there — Beethoven or the Beatles. It was fun. You could grab a coffee in the café and sidle over to look at giant TVs while your wife checked out music or items for the house and your kids checked out the latest toys or video games. They had one of the largest print magazine racks anywhere.
Those days were long gone, but the doorway itself was a gigantic piano through which you walked to get inside. It was unique. It was different. It gave the store some personality that other electronics stores, in fact pretty much every other type of store, no longer bothers to want. These days the culture seems set to wring every last bit of personality out of everything.
As I walked through the aisles Monday, I couldn’t help notice how empty the shelves were. The back quarter of the giant store was closed off and darkened. I’d heard a few weeks back they were planning to put in a toy section back there. The stock had been dwindling for months as the chain struggled to keep its business going in the face of online competition and the pandemic that’s ravaged everything not online. A staff member asked if I needed any help, and I replied I was looking for printer ink, and he said which aisle it had been moved to, so I went there. They didn’t have the ink for my printer. It wasn’t a surprise, to be honest. Bare shelves and all. I didn’t really expect to find it. I wasn’t even entirely sure the store would be open. The crushed Christmas shopping season looked like it would do the store in, but like a patient fighting to survive, it gamely kept going a few more weeks. Fry’s tried a consignment model to stay in business, but it didn’t work.
So I walked out without buying anything, and headed over to a faceless corporate office supply store and found the ink. That was the last time I’d shop at a Fry’s Electronics. Fry’s is closed nationwide as of today.
My last actual purchase there turned out to be the monitor I’m using to write this. It’s the big one behind me in my show, C’Mon Now!, and the weekly VIP Gold chat, which has been given a name: Five O’Clock Somewhere. The monitor is fine, nothing special. But at least Fry’s stocked monitors made in America, of which this is one. The faceless, personality-free stores don’t bother.
My dad’s generation had cars. They’d buy them, tinker with them, compare them, race them. That was their generation’s thing, at least for the gearheads. They had auto parts stores and garages to feed the need.
My generation had computers. We’d buy them, tinker with them, compare them, and even overclock them. That was our generation’s thing, as least for us nerdy gearheads. Every machine I own is tricked out or upgraded in some way, and some of the parts came from Fry’s. Fry’s was our parts store to feed the nerd need.
Fry’s was one of the best places to obtain the parts to pursue that computer gearhead thing. Along with the old CompUSA, which died as brick and mortar and went entirely online years ago, Fry’s was where you went to get just about any electronics or computer part you needed for just about any desire or task.
I’m not terribly sentimental about faceless corporations, they come and go and others spring up. But the demise of Fry’s seems like the passing of a particular period of time and the loss of a friendly confine. Founded in 1985 on the West Coast, Fry’s spread over to Texas and had a handful of stores here. Fry’s was the place for techno types to get stuff, obtain technological advice, and just hang out.
The first Fry’s I shopped at was in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex during a trip home from Tokyo sometime in the 1990s. I went there with my parents to look at something or other, but I thought the place was pretty cool.
Tokyo has a city section called Akihabara. That’s the electronics district, a whole area of the city brimming with little electronics boutiques, camera stores, and computer parts stores. Since I’m a nerd, Akihabara was one of my haunts when I could get there, which wasn’t often enough as it was a long train ride from my base. Fry’s packed a lot of Akihabara’s gadgetry in one place and it didn’t lack for charm.
The north Austin store was the closest Fry’s to me. Fry’s locations all had unique themes — the Mayan pyramids, the Wild West, and so forth. Ours was the grand piano, probably because Austin has such a live music scene. Or it had one, before the pandemic ravaged that, too.
There’s a chain of taco joints in Texas once called Taco Bueno. They had personality. They used to go the distance to decorate every restaurant as if it was a Mexican plaza. They don’t do that anymore. Now they’re just called Bueno and they look like generic fast-food joints inside. I haven’t been to one in years. I was at Fry’s pretty often.
Fry’s was also a place to just get out of the house for a while and look at stuff. Be a technology tourist. Dream about the man cave or plan the home office you’d trick out. Try out desks and office chairs. Check out 3D printers. Shop for gifts. Pick up a part you really needed, right now. People complained about customer service there, but I never had a problem. I usually found what I needed because at its peak Fry’s literally stocked everything that harnessed electrons to do things. If I had a problem, returns weren’t an issue. My son and I used parts and the staff’s help to build a gaming PC there and I had them refill ink cartridges and fix a thing or two that were beyond my abilities. They had a row of those coin-op toy vending machines like none other. Kids loved ’em. In the store’s heyday, which was probably a decade or so ago, they’d line up on Saturdays in the crowded stores to pop in a quarter, turn the handle, and await some random toy to fall out of the chute.
So I’ll miss Fry’s for all that. It’s a shame to see them go, though as noted, it’s no surprise. They’d been ailing for a long time, even before COVID.
A few thousand people, Fry’s last staffers, are looking for work today in one of the worst economies our world has endured. Keep a thought and prayer for them. Our current government doesn’t prioritize job creation.
Fry’s demise isn’t their fault. The corporation made some bad decisions. Competition from other stores chewed at them. Amazon and the pandemic did them in. And now it’s gone.