Seventeen years ago this month (at the beginning of my junior year at DePaul University), I started at a part time in my native West Pullman at the local Radio Shack.
I can say it was the first job my late father was excited about me having, my late uncle too, I grew up going with my dad to getting parts at Radio Shack and then the cool radio controlled cars as well.
But working there was different, remember this is late 1997, so technology was little different then and this was a urban store (very different than the suburban mall job I held previously), so the clientele was also different.
My first day (a Saturday), was the wake up of how things were different. First off, one of the first people through the door was a woman who sold chicken dinners (and they were really good), so that was our lunch, in fact we had as many hustlers coming in selling things as customers buying things.
There was the guy selling incense (you know the kind on a stick that you burn when you’re smoking something you shouldn’t), there was the guy hustling tube socks and then my favorite the guy selling bootleg music cassette tapes & VHS movies (it was 1997), he also had movies that were explicit that he’d show you in the back (which led to the downfall of the store manager), so there was a steady stream of people we needed to manage. That was the first challenge was just keeping the store from being a circus. I remember having car trouble and someone actually offering to work on my car in the parking lot while I worked.
The number one thing that was sold was phone cards, remember having “Pay per go cards” for companies like Cellular One? Yeah those usually in $ 10 & $ 20 dollar increments, so yes those people came in a lot, like every other day. One customer in particular came in virtually daily and he worked at the local fast food fish restaurant. Dude came in covered in flour, smelling like french fries and cooking oil that should have been changed several thousand miles ago. You always knew when he had been in, smelled like catfish purgatory the rest of the afternoon.
The store also sold Primeco phones, remember the little purple alien in the commercials? We were pushed to sell those but it did not work in that area, most people didn’t have contract phones (regardless of where you lived), in 1997 and the phones were small in size for the time. Many people (myself included), still had “brick” (original Motorola), phones and just bought the previously mentioned phone cards. That was the challenge of the job balancing what was expected but then dealing with what came in the door.
The number two thing that was sold was cable (coaxial), wire, at the time Chicago Cable was the only cable provider on the south side but so many guys (like my late dad & uncle), hooked up their own cable and extended their coverage (adding boxes & TVs), thus many guys came in to buy cable wire in boxes of 10, 25 & 100 feet. Sometimes buying multiple boxes of wire a week. And with my knowledge of my dad’s bootleg cable ways, I became the point man for cable questions which themselves were questionable. Many were people asking how to do things that were let say not quite according with cable company policies. So it put me in a tough spot to give customer service but stay on the right side of the law and what would actually work. People often asked if certain scenarios would work and their perceptions of cable and the realities of cable were often as far apart as the length of the cable they bought.
The next thing that was asked about a lot was car stereos, now granted all that the store stocked was parts (no actual radios nor speakers just wires, brackets, harnesses, etc), but again due to the experience I had with my dad and brother of what we now call DIY (do it yourself), electronics, I was asked (and sometimes shown), homemade radios and installations gone wrong. I remember one guy had me come to his car (which the manager didn’t like), and the customer had his radio wired and running in the car but on the floor and not in the dashboard as it should be. That situation was well beyond my abilities.
And then there were repairs, well the store didn’t repair anything, everything was sent out (some actually came back), and some customers actually came to pick them up, so the back of the store was loaded with repairs, some fixed, some not and a few actually inquired about but obviously not picked up. I think customers used the store as the first electronics recycling site. After the first manager was relieved of his duties, a second interim manager actually sold the unclaimed repairs to me and a co worker. I was able to finish the repairs to a couple of things but as karma would have it, they broke again.
At the time next door to the store on one side was a furniture and appliance rental store and on the other side was a car parts store. Believe it or not, people didn’t always look at the sign outside to which store they were walking into. One day a woman came in and loudly claimed she had made her couch payment within the store before. It took a few minutes to convince her she needed to make the payment next door. People often came in asking for car parts and even after they were told this was a electronics parts store, they’d ask anyway.
That was probably the most entertaining yet frustrating part of the job was the questions. Someone once called and asked if the store sold underwear (aka “draws”), someone else once called about tires. Yes tires for a car.
But the best question was one day a customer walked in and wanted “radio wire”, I asked if he wanted speaker wire, he said no. I asked if it was for an antennae or for stereo components (aka RCA wire), no. He said he wanted “wire for a big ol’ radio”. To this day I have no idea what he wanted.
That job was a three month gig I’ll never forget and if you wondered, yeah I’m still a Radio Shack customer, still buying parts at the store near me to this day but no I don’t buy cable nor ask about “radio wire”.
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Filed under: Chicago