History of Silicon Valley Indeed: Is Fry’s Electronics Dying?

As most of my readers know, Fry’s Electronics has been a mainstay in Silicon Valley culture since the mid-1980s. It’s spread around the country, from southern California to Texas and Arizona and the Midwest and probably locations I don’t even know about. There’s even one in Las Vegas.

The stores have themes, running from the Wild West theme of the Palo Alto location (the oldest continuously operating Fry’s store), to Las Vegas’s obvious Las Vegas Strip theme. The current (and third) Sunnyvale location is themed History of Silicon Valley, with an oscillator on the front, huge sepia photos of the founding people and events of Silicon Valley, and more.

But perhaps, like Halted and Weird Stuff in the past two years, this piece of Silicon Valley history may be coming to an end.

The first store opened in Sunnyvale in 1985, near the current location of Faultline Brewing (just off 101 and Lawrence Expressway). When I came to California just over 10 years later, it had moved to the “chip” themed building on Kern and Lawrence (white walls with black marks like an integrated circuit; the building is now a Sports Basement). Sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s they built a new, enormous store at Arques and Santa Trinita, just a block or so from the Kern location. It had parking for hundreds of cars, almost a hundred cash registers, a cafe in the middle of the store, auto electronics installation bays on the side, and all in all it was a formidable experience.

I’ve never seen more than half of the registers in operation, but it’s often been crowded, and I’ve occasionally run into old friends and former colleagues… even those who had long since moved out of the area would come back like pilgrims.

Lately the parking lot has seemed impressively sparse, and fewer shoppers on most visits (except around the holidays and major TV-inducing sporting events). The shelves were usually well stocked, and things were often where you expected them.

But things keep changing.

A Sad Sunnyvale Visit

I went to Fry’s in Sunnyvale last Friday to look for a water filter cartridge. Didn’t think to check stock online first, but once I walked in, I knew I wasn’t going to find it.

The parking lot was the typical empty for a Friday afternoon, maybe a bit more. There were more old guys in the cafe than shoppers in the rest of the store. Lots and lots of empty shelves, far fewer staff than usual, felt like the last days of Orchard Supply Hardware but with fewer people and 10 times the space.

As I walked around, seeing what was left, I got the feeling that they could probably carve the store up… block off half of it and build a new entrance, for an entire second store… and still have plenty of room.

I ended up not finding my water filter cartridge. I did pick up a USB hub and a model train magazine though.

And maybe the strangest thing… As far as I can remember, for the first time in my 22+ years of going to Fry’s (since my friend Ray took me there in 1996 or maybe early 1997), there was nobody at the exit to check my receipt.

What happened to Fry’s?

There’s been a lot of media coverage of this, mostly columnists not entirely unlike me, looking at how the world has changed in the last ten years or so. You usually didn’t go to Fry’s for knowledgeable sales staff (although they’d be happy to read the box to you). Warm inviting environments were not their forte, and the “Fry’s Lending Library” (where you’d buy something to use for a day, or test out something else, before returning it) was definitely not part of their marketing, but a lot of people used that function of their stores, despite the long and drawn-out return process.

You went to Fry’s because if you needed almost anything, from a cable to a capacitor to a chair to a computer to a Coke to a charcoal grill, you could find a variety to choose from. You could pick up a magazine and a candy bar and a soda and a pack of batteries in the long check-out line. And it was almost always good for those things.

The biggest thing that happened to Fry’s was Amazon. And I’d say they started adjusting to Amazon about five years too late.

They acquired Cyberian Outpost in 2002 to build out their e-commerce business, and that went sluggishly. They started doing price-matching to local stores and online stores, but either trained their staff wrong or didn’t train them at all, which meant that even if a 4-port KVM switch was available and in stock 10 miles away, they’d try to match it to an 8-port switch and deny the match (happened to me, and I ended up taking the 10 mile trek).

As time went by, they merged outpost.com into frys.com and made it a better experience, including in-store inventory checking and in-store pickup. They’ve started doing price-matching smoothly and accurately, even to Amazon and Best Buy and Newegg. They even introduced same-day home/office delivery recently.

But the parking lots are more empty than not, the stores are hollow echoes of their past glory, and experts as well as fellow customers are having trouble seeing hope for Fry’s Electronics’s future.

Where do they go from here?

We know the Palo Alto store is closing (due to a lease not being renewed), and there are reports of low stock and low staff around the country leaving many fans and shoppers dubious.

Aside from that, spokesmen for Fry’s say they are rebalancing, restocking for the holidays, adjusting inventory, and otherwise laying in for the long haul. It is true that, from Thanksgiving night through Epiphany, Fry’s does tend to pick up in pace, so it’s entirely possible that the next month will see a restructuring and new life.

At this point, we’ll have to wait and see if Santa brings a new life to Fry’s Electronics this Christmas season.

Where can we go from here?

On the upside, two other mainstays are holding up fairly well.

After an early morning fire in April 2019 destroyed their Sunnyvale location on El Camino, Central Computer (another 1985 Silicon Valley classic) is opening a new Sunnyvale store over near where HRO (and Disk Drive Depot and Action Surplus and the original Fry’s store) used to be. Signage and social media say it should be open by the end of the year. In the meantime, they have locations in Santa Clara, San Mateo, Fremont, and San Francisco.

And after formally going out of business in January 2019 after 54 years, Halted/HSC was bought by Excess Solutions, and they’re settling in nicely at the 7th St and Alma location in San Jose. You’ll find classic Halted stock and some of the classic Halted staff alongside the surplus gear, furniture, office supplies, and components that Excess Solutions has been known for.

If you’re looking for a smaller component source, Anchor Electronics is still around  in an industrial part of Santa Clara.

And assuming Fry’s doesn’t close down their Sunnyvale store before then, you can look forward to the return of the Electronics Flea Market on March 14, 2020, in the side parking lot at Fry’s Sunnyvale.

All may not be lost, but it seems like it sometimes.
What do you think about the state of electronics retail in Silicon Valley and beyond? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

HSC Electronics will be halted early next year

Update: The HSC folks were out with a stand at the Electronics Flea Market in Sunnyvale this morning (March 9, 2019). Signs and flyers noted that they’ve sold the store to Excess Solutions of San Jose. Should be interesting to see how the inventory is integrated.

Halted Excess 2019-03-09 07.40.42

Update: HSC closed this past Saturday, January 12, 2019. There was an impressive crowd, cake and coffee, and last minute deals. Best wishes to the owners and employees for success in their next stages, whether retirement or different work.

About 8 months ago, I wrote about the closure of Weird Stuff Warehouse in Sunnyvale, California. Well, Halted Electronic Supply/Halted Specialties Company/HSC Electronic Supply will joining Weird Stuff in the history of Silicon Valley in just about 6 weeks.

Halted History

Halted has been in business for 54 years now. The Homebrew Computer Club often visited back in the day (including both Steves). I wasn’t around the Bay Area for most of that time, but got an introduction early in my time here, in the late 90s.

Around the turn of the century, Halted had three locations, with the main one being in Santa Clara on Ryder St, just off Central Expressway and Lawrence Expressway (near the Sunnyvale Frys, the pre-1996 Weird Stuff, St John’s Grill, and Ham Radio Outlet among others). Gradually the remote locations closed, and the Ryder store was left.

Halted was known for components of all sorts, books and magazines for people who made things from those components, antique radios, tools, legacy computer components, and all sorts of other things. It wouldn’t be unusual to find people in the store with ham radio transceivers on, students buying components for an electronics class, people reminiscing about the radios they used to listen to during the war, and random bargain hunters looking for computers and electronics to mess with at home.

They also had a well-known parking lot sale every September, where cases and crates and pallets would come out of the warehouse, hot dogs and donuts would be put out for sale, and you could get some incredible deals on things you’d forgotten you needed. And you could also find them at the Electronics Flea Market sometimes, with a truck full of carts from the store.

The New York Times had a feature on Halted in 2009, revealing and even foretelling the greatest strength and weakness of the business at that point. Continue reading

Weird Stuff Warehouse closed this weekend

I probably should’ve had more of a teaser title, but it’s still a bit of a shock, so you get the bottom line in the title. After 32 years, Weird Stuff Warehouse is closing this Sunday.

Updates at the end. This post has been updated multiple times since publication.

Also see the unfortunate news from Halted here: HSC Electronics will be halted early next year

If this is your first time here, please do take a look around. I’ve written about gear I’ve bought at WeirdStuff, but there’s a lot more here, from system builds and hardware, Psycho Overkill Home Office technology, and then there’s rsts11travel which breaks out my travel and related adventures and discoveries.

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-10-14,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-Y

For techies who’ve lived in or heard of Silicon Valley anytime in the last 30 years, you probably already know Weird Stuff Warehouse very well.

Ars Technica wrote about them in 2013. The Six Fifty posted last year. Atlas Obscura got a post just last month apparently. You can see an archive of people’s Weird Stuff posts on Instagram here.

And over three decades after they opened up, serving businesses that wanted to get rid of no-longer-needed stuff as well as individuals who “needed” that stuff, Weird Stuff Warehouse is closing its doors at the end of business on Sunday, April 8, 2018. Continue reading

First look: Satechi’s Type-C Power Meter

My friend John Obeto pointed out some pre-release coverage of Satechi’s new USB-C power meter a week or so ago. I’ve had a number of different USB-A (standard port) testers and meters for a while, but with more devices coming into rsts11 headquarters with Type C connections (including the XPS 13 9350 and XPS 15 9550, Apple’s 12″ Macbook, the ASUS Zenpad Z10 from Verizon, and the Nexus 6P by Huawei and Google), I’ve wanted to look at power consumption beyond what an A-to-C adapter could reveal.

For those of you new to USB-C, it’s designed (in part) to be a universal connector for power and data, incorporating high speed data in a connector shared with Thunderbolt 3 (40gbit capability), a reversible connector like Apple Lightning, and some daisy-chaining capabilities like Thunderbolt 2. The standard allows for up to 100W of power, although the highest powered adapters I’ve found are 60W. The Dell Thunderbolt 3 docking station has a non-standard option beyond this; when you’re connected to a recognized Dell device it will bump the power up to 130W just like the stock XPS 15 adapter.

But the catch is that USB-A power supplies are generally limited to 2.4A at 5V, with some exceptions for Qualcomm Quickcharge and Samsung Adaptive Fast Charging and the like (which can go to 9V or 12V on compatible devices). So most USB-A power meters will only show/handle 2.4A at 5V, or 12 watts. My smaller USB-C devices easily pull 15W whereas the XPS 15 should pull a lot more than that. Continue reading

How to avoid Funky Town – pet peeves on ‘sudo echo’ and pipelines #rsts11

I was reading about a Raspberry Pi supercomputer design at University of Southampton. Pretty cool stuff, but something bugged me about one of the later sections. it’s something that bites me sometimes when I’m trying to be good and use ‘sudo’ instead of ‘su’ or logging in as root.

For those of you who may not remember, ‘sudo‘ is a command that gives you some or all of the privileges of another user (often root, but not limited to that user). A sysadmin can define certain commands, options, and users that each user can “take over,” as it were. But I would guess most readers of this blog generally use ‘sudo’ to execute a command as root, or worse, to become root with ‘sudo su –

So what’s your bucket, Robert?

But anyway, Southampton’s document specifies the following command invocations to edit a system config file.

Hostname Script

If you want to rename each machine, you can do it from the Master node using:

ssh pi@192.168.1.162 ‘sudo echo “iridispi002” | sudo tee /etc/hostname’

ssh pi@192.168.1.163 ‘sudo echo “iridispi003” | sudo tee /etc/hostname’

ssh pi@192.168.1.164 ‘sudo echo “iridispi004” | sudo tee /etc/hostname’

There’s a very good reason for part of that — the ‘pi’ user cannot edit files in /etc. So what you might do as root:

ssh root@192.168.1.162 echo  iridispi002 > /etc/hostname

would fail if run as a non root account.

The eagle-eyed among you will want to write in and mention that the command above would replace /etc/hostname on the local system *after* sshing to 192.168.1.162, and you’d be right, assuming you run it as root on the local system. The way around that would be

ssh root@192.168.1.162 'echo iridispi002 > /etc/hostname'

But as a non-root user, you have to escalate your privilege to change most system config files. The suggested command:

ssh pi@192.168.1.162 'sudo echo "iridispi002" | sudo tee /etc/hostname'

is excessive for one reason.

echo‘ is not a privileged command. There is no reason to ‘sudo echo‘ — at least not that I can think of. It will not take you to Funkytown (even if you are more of a Lipps, Inc fan)

This won’t break anything, but it does execute another potentially auditable command, write another line to the sudo log file, and get you into a suboptimal habit. 

Instead,

ssh pi@192.168.1.162 'echo iridispi002 | sudo tee /etc/hostname'

would do just what we want.

Tell me about this “tee” command

tee,’ by the way, is a command that takes standard input (STDIN), writes it both to standard output (STDOUT) *and* the filename specified as a parameter. Note that tee will create a file if it doesn’t already exist, and overwrite it if it does. If you want to append to an existing file, use something like ‘tee -a <filename>‘ … for example, this will propagate your hosts file with hostnames for a popular RFC1918 subnet:

for h in $(seq 1 255);
do
      echo 192.168.1.$h host$h.mydomain host$h |\
      tee -a /etc/hosts
done

There are other ways to execute non-privileged commands and use the output to affect priviliged files. One way is to use ‘dd‘ to pass data through. For example, creating a bootable USB drive in Linux from a boot image could be done with:

dd if=ubuntugolden.img | sudo dd of=/dev/sdf1

But note that dd doesn’t protect you from yourself, so check that command before you wreck it.

So where do we go from here?

If you’re going to keep to minimal privilege escalation, which is the Right Thing(tm) to do, even if it’s inconvenient… think about what you’re using sudo for, and keep it between the navigational beacons.

And by the way, am I the only one who thinks of Robotech when I use the sixth scsi device? Probably not the best way to party like it’s 1999.