When shopping for electronics becomes archaeology

     (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-122048020/stock-photo-a-glowing-radio-with-the-marker-running-through-the-different-stations-and-frequencies.html?src=csl_recent_image-1'>Radio dial image</a> courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    (Radio dial image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    “Twenty-five dollars seems like a lot,” the clerk said, tapping a hand-held tablet to record my purchase. “I mean, it doesn’t do anything.” I was buying a portable radio, which, if you haven’t shopped for one lately (and of course you haven’t), is quickly slipping into the electronic graveyard.

    “Twenty-five dollars seems like a lot,” the clerk said, tapping a hand-held tablet to record my purchase. “I mean, it doesn’t do anything.”

    I was buying a portable radio, which, if you haven’t shopped for one lately (and of course you haven’t), is quickly slipping into the electronic graveyard, there to join reel-to-reel, eight-track, and cassette tapes, shortwave and citizens-band radios, answering machines, corded telephones, the Victrola, the telegraph, and probably the key Ben Franklin attached to his kite.

    In search of a radio

    Nevertheless, a radio was what I wanted. And one recent Saturday, my local Sears had only two on a shelf deep in electronics, buried behind speaker cradles for mp3 players and a couple of clock radios. I wanted a battery-powered radio to drag from kitchen to backyard, one that didn’t require a tether or dock to be heard.

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    The radio I bought, about the size of a hardcover novel, was almost what I was looking for. Programmable buttons would have made it perfect. My old radio had five, which was why I put up with its idiosyncrasies all winter.

    Once, it had crisp tones and pulled in signals with ease, whether propped on counter, carpet or cement. Years of rigorous use, though, had exhausted the poor thing, which now only worked lying down, with its telescoping antenna fully extended at a severe angle, like a badly broken arm. Face-down, it delivered sports and talk passably well. Face-up was better for music. Even so, the hum of static was constant, and it undulated if I moved close by. Inevitably, the noise was loudest when anything I really wanted to hear came on.

    Resigned, I trudged into the electronics department, a place I once understood. When asked what I was looking for, I shaped my reply carefully, knowing that conclusions will be drawn. I would very much like to delay those conclusions.

    From icon to anachronism

    What I wanted, but dared not ask for, was a transistor radio, the smart phone of the 1960s. Really. Developed in 1954, compact transistor circuitry freed listeners from tabletop radios, large plug-in units with vacuum tubes that required warming up before use.

    With transistors, people could listen anywhere on a radio that fit in a shirt pocket. Billions were manufactured in the 1960s and 1970s, many of them powered by the square 9-volt battery that was designed expressly for the device. Transistor radios arrived just in time for teens to take their tunes to the beach, for baseball fans to carry the game out to the back porch on a summer night, or for you to stick it in a desk drawer when the boss walked by.

    A single earphone, the forerunner of earbuds, allowed private listening. And users often improved the characteristically scratchy sound by pressing the radio flat against an ear with the palm of a hand — a technique mimicked today by their smart-phoning children and grandchildren.

    With only two portable radios available, it was a quick choice. I headed to the checkout, where two hulking cash registers sat idle, and handed the box to the clerk. Ignoring the registers, he picked up a tablet with a strap that attached to his arm or belt, like a tech-gunslinger.

    Technical difficulties link generations

    He tapped on the screen. Then he tapped some more. “Where did it go?” he said. “I can’t find the app.”

    Sympathetic and amused, I waited. He called to a second clerk, who wore his tablet on a lanyard around his neck. Clerk two came over and, heads bent over screens, they tapped in unison, looking like members of an earlier generation trying to tune in a weak station. Maybe to hear Woodstock.

    Eventually, they located the app and the clerk waved his tablet over my radio. That was when he noticed the price. “That can’t be right,” he said. “It doesn’t do anything, at least not anything I want.”

    Trying not to feel like an Egyptian artifact, I changed the subject. Indicating his tablet and the two big registers, I asked, “Do you think that will do away with those?”

    Still tapping, and only half–listening, he replied, “Oh I don’t think so. Do you want the extended warranty?”

    I declined, figuring that the parts and repair channels were disappearing even more quickly than the radios themselves. A 30-day warranty is sufficient guarantee for an item about to slide into extinction.

    Ever since, I’ve been thinking I should have bought the other radio too, as a backup.

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