RIP, RadioShack -- we don't know how good we had it

Supergeeks may scoff at brick-and-mortar stores, but these tech meccas were integral to hands-on interaction and discovery

It's official: I'm snarking on the wrong side of the generation gap. It's undoubtedly the beginning of the end for me -- going through puberty in the tech industry is akin to hitting 65 in government service. While others may shrug at the news of RadioShack and Staples downsizing, I'm feeling the loss of one of my greatest pleasures: the brick-and-mortar geek browsing experience.

The current generation doesn't understand it at all. Ask my niece if she wants to go shopping for a new notebook, and she'll roll over in her Red Bull-stained PJs and say, "Geez, Uncle Bob, you know you can order it online, right?" Sometimes I think she'd be better off growing up to be a Somali pirate. At least she'd get out of the house.

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Retail electronics browsing is akin to wandering through a bookstore looking at random titles and covers -- which will never be supplanted by Amazon's soulless "customers who bought this book also bought random crap" engine. With RadioShack moving online, all that's left for serious geek browsing is the glorious and much larger Fry's, but that's only on the West Coast -- like there aren't any serious nerds in New York -- and who knows how long it'll last.

The retail roundabout

Sure, there's OfficeMax, but 100 square feet of last quarter's laptops is nowhere in the same league as the 'Shack. Plus, if Staples is shuttering stores, OfficeMax can't be far behind. Eventually, Best Buy will end up as the only real geek store on the East Coast, and ever since the Geek Squad stopped driving around in VW Bugs, I don't like them as much.

You can point to the ubiquitous mall tenant, the Apple Store, but there's a heavy home bias, and the term "Apple Genius" makes me want to commit arson. Even though the me-too Microsoft Store has expanded from its initial four nationwide locations, no matter which mall I go to, the only people I see in those places are the Microsoft Not-So-Genius salespeople. You can forget about browsing in Wal-Mart -- its geek section is almost as small as OfficeMax's, and once you're inside, all you can think about is getting out again, which is harder than escaping a Las Vegas casino. No, it's taking some time, but ever since the death of CompUSA, retail geek stores have been inexorably sliding into extinction.

What's left? A slew of online retailers, e-tailers, and completely mystifying startups that make it seem like the venture capitalists of today learned absolutely nothing from the implosion of the last dot-com bubble.

Shopper's remorse galore

Without the ability to physically browse products, I'll wind up neck deep in impulse buys I grabbed based on tech news reports, which have a habit of fixating on the weirdest offerings around, like the bacon-scented alarm clock. In a store, I'd examine the thing, giggle, and put it back on the shelf. But if it's the only online toy I bump into on a retail-therapy day, it could easily wind up on my nightstand.

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