Today I rewired my vacuum cleaner, replaced its faulty cord. It was simple task, really—the wires leading to the plug had frayed & ripped a bit, breaking the circuit. I trimmed back the copper on each feed, then reattached them to the plug, & refit the rubber casing back in place. Power restored.
Over the years, I’ve gotten fairly decent at puzzling out household fixes, & when it’s beyond me, I get on the phone to my dad. He worked as an electrical engineer his whole life, in just a small handful of different jobs. In his off hours, he brought his skills home. As his father taught him, my dad knew how to build or fix most anything in our house, & often built or fixed the house itself, too. What he didn’t already know, he taught himself. Carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, painting, various installations, appliance repair—I’m not sure, as a child, I ever really knew you could hire other people to do such things. For my grandparents’ generation—a Depression-Era generation—the ethic my father grew up with was repair, not replace: first, replacing was expensive & often wasteful, but also, it was unnecessary. If something could be built, it could be fixed; one just needed a few pieces of knowledge & the right replacement parts.
RadioShack was founded in 1921, less than two decades before my father was born. The store first began as a
supplier for amateur radio equipment, taking its name from the small rooms that housed the first transmitters, which relied on spark gaps to transmit radio waves. This week, nearly 100 years later, after growing into an international electronics franchise, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It will close nearly 1800 stores, attempt to sell off others, and liquidate much of its merchandise.
There were several RadioShacks within proximity to our house: one at Cloverleaf Mall (the Mall we all meant by “Let’s go to the Mall,” for most of my childhood—a mall that was also included in a recent popular BuzzFeed list of abandoned malls), another in a nearby strip mall. The times my father came shopping with us—my mother, my brother & sister—it was usually because he needed a part from RadioShack or a tool from Sears. A tube to repair the cabinet television set in our family room, the one with the purely decorative brass drawer handles beneath the picture. A replacement blade for a circular saw. A spool of copper to rewire a vacuum cord.
Not too long after we moved into the house I grew up in, my father built his own workshop in our backyard. One large room styled as a smaller version of our house. He installed three windows: two bedroom-sized six-over-sixes flanking its door, & a large picture window across its back wall. Much of it was salvaged—the large window was one he’d pulled from the main house & replaced with a sliding glass door that led onto a screened-in back porch he’d also built himself. The workshop’s door was the original house front door. And he wrapped the structure with leftover siding boards & painted the exterior the same leaf green as our home.
Inside the workshop, there was magic. A busted tape deck went in, then reappeared a week or so later in my bedroom, my Madonna tape safely back inside, like a prayer. Lamps, blenders, television sets, all defibrillated back to breath. The abstract bits & pieces from RadioShack all looked alike to me, but my dad would scan the aisles for just the right code number on its carton, the precise remedy.
I never thought I’d have the opportunity to feel nostalgic about the closing of a store that, in recent years, has become an ongoing joke reference for obsolescence. But I do. The stories of its closure puts me right back in my dad’s workshop, propped on a stool, watching him repair our belongings, rather than replace them. Many times, he’d talk me through what he was doing, something I’m sure his own father did with him. It’s a kind of resourcefulness that I look for in other people now, but rarely find. An instinct to fix, a confidence to try. Skill. I don’t want that instinct to have ended at my father’s generation—I sincerely hope that it hasn’t, & I find myself so drawn to people my own age who possess it, more than any other quality. It is my favorite kind of intelligence, my favorite kind of beauty.
I loathe shopping in stores. It’s tedious, & often feels so luxurious—too much so—to actually enjoy. So much stuff in the world. I have so much already—it seems unfathomable that I need to purchase anything anymore, even when I do. But the stores that specialize in parts—art supply, grocery, hardware (even drugstores, in a certain way)—I could walk their aisles for hours, dreaming of what I could make from the pieces, what I could fix.
RadioShack is closing, & I’m guessing my father feels the certain kind of grief I’m expressing, but on a much larger—albeit quieter—scale. As I’m typing this in my living room, I’m looking at a radio I have sitting in the corner, one built by my grandfather from spare parts, still in perfect working order. It was a handed-down gift to me from my father after his parents both passed away. I’m thinking about how technology has progressed across the 77 years he’s lived. How—for an engineer, a scientist, a builder, a re-inventor like him—it must just be astonishing, the way his craft has grown.
I’m proud that it hasn’t left him behind—he’s evolved with each stage of it, learning how to master & how to fix each new contraption that inserts itself into our daily lives. The television has morphed from tubes and a plywood casing to a plasma screen the width of a wallet. The RadioShack TRS computer that was our family’s first has long since been swapped for paper-light tablets & laptops. And the massive stack of receiver/tape deck/cabinet speakers has been compressed into concert-perfect sound from Bluetooth speakers the size of Pop-Tarts.
Mostly, though, I’m thankful for his wisdom, that he always shared his knowledge with me, & never thought that having such a skill was somehow gendered, something for boys & not girls. To know a thing is to see it broken & then see it as reparable, or to build it from scratch—the way the heart is just a circuit board, a series of tubes, a workshop, an array of assembled spare parts. I’ve learned how to fix it myself.