Thursday, June 1, 2017

Pre-Google I/O Entertainment: Old Electronics Stores and Computer Resellers!

The opportunity Google gave me to attend Google I/O, their annual conference, two weeks ago required me to travel to the Bay Area in California in order to attend in person.  Also known as Silicon Valley, it is an area steeped in computer history, featuring (of course) the Computer History Museum, not to mention large offices or global headquarters for many current and long-gone tech behemoths, plus all the tiny startups making millions off various Internet and mobile technologies.  As someone who has been using computers their entire life (well over 25 years now), I am enthusiastic about the way forward but do not want to forget about the winding, bumpy way that has gotten us to this point.

As I seek to bolster my collection of retro-tech, it is fascinating to pontificate on what all these devices would have cost brand new.  There's no way my family could have afforded but one or two these things back in the day, but as technology marches on and leaves so much of itself in the dust, follow along with me as I walk through some of the few remaining stores and shops dedicated to the Hardware Era of Silicon Valley.

Definitely not where Google I/O was.

However, pretty much right across the street from this Yahoo! building was the first stop on my tour after picking up my Google I/O badge: Weird Stuff Warehouse.  Not having been into such a computer surplus/resale store, I was filled with just about as much wonderment as I was upon walking into my first neighborhood computer store back in 2000 (let's just say it was much better than most neighborhood computer stores, and certainly a different experience from the big box retailers).  Upon walking in, you are greeted with about four aisles of tested working stuff of all kinds, including computers & parts, video equipment, and other assorted electronics.  There are several counters and associates waiting to offer help in this area.  That might not sound like much, but wait; it gets more interesting.

Behind this "Open to the public" sign (actually right where I'm standing when I took this picture), at the far corner of the first room from the entrance, is a whole plethora of aisles in their "As-is" section devoted to old software, I/O cards of all kinds, computer peripherals, cables, test equipment, server racks, typewriters, old telephony equipment, hard drives, floppy drives, CD/DVD drives, tape drives of all types, and even the obscure media that goes with these tape drives.

Some of the aisles in the "As-is" section of WeirdStuff Warehouse.

It is difficult to convey through pictures just how much there is to look at here because from the camera's perspective, it all disappears into the vanishing point so quickly, and so many of the bins are very small.  But after about three or four hours perusing Weird Stuff trying to pick as much SCSI components as I could muster, I had one of their associates search for some interesting stuff out of the back (namely more SCSI drives).  As it turns out, most folks say that they don't have everything necessarily out on display nor listed on their website; generally the stuff listed on their website isn't out in the aisles available to be browsed in-person.  Also, one of the guys from the Vintage Computer Forums says he's got a standing order with WeirdStuff where they'll let him know if they get anything on his wish list.  What a neat service that could be, but I'd hate (love?) to see how much stuff he's ended up with over the years!  Anyway, once I was through, I hailed another Lyft ride who whisked me on to Anchor Electronics.

Because when I think Anchor, or Electronics, I think "wire-frame dirigible..." ?!?

Anchor is in a small building right across the street from the southeast corner of the NVIDIA offices.  Walking into Anchor for the first time, it really felt like more of a typical electronic component store (i.e. more like a well-stocked Radio Shack) than WeirdStuff.  Everything in Anchor was some sort of component or tool neatly organized on their shelves.  I didn't really have a lot of time to browse around, having only about 25 minutes there before they closed, but I also wasn't really in need of components either.  They do happen to have various protoboards for everything from ISA to Arduino shields, and a small smattering of Atari 8-bit parts, of interest to vintage computer folks, but I'm really more interested in Atari ST (Sixteen/Thirty-two) systems; they don't carry those types of parts.  I did manage to get into a discussion with another fellow in the store and their main technical support guy Orville by helping brainstorm solutions for some short-distance presence detection type of application, and Orville was interested that his store was one of my primary sights to see in the Valley.  However, it was closing time, and I needed to leave.

Scenes from inside Anchor Electronics, a relatively small but dense store, including the one telling me it's time to go!

Now I was a bit split.  Do I take another Lyft down into San Jose to Excess Electronics and contend with tons of Silicon Valley traffic, or do I just take what's convenient?  Ultimately, Excess will just have to wait until next time, as Orville ended up driving me to my next destination just a few minutes after close; this would be HSC Electronics.  Along the short 1.5-mile journey there, Orville pointed out all sorts of buildings along the street that house famous names now but held other large names 10, 20, or 30 years ago that have since gone extinct -- most notably, the Qualcomm building on Kifer Road real close to HSC that formerly housed 3Com.

HSC is a really big electronic component store that, as much as I love Tanner's in Dallas, makes Tanner look like an itty-bitty Radio Shack in comparison to a great big Fry's store.  The fellows at HSC were also very cordial, and Orville was also buddies with them (and possibly performing a bit of reconnaissance on the competition... you never know!).  Once I expressed my interest in old computers with them such as the Amiga and Atari, they brought out some oddities for me to see: the KIM-1 (1976's version of a Raspberry Pi) and another old-time single-board computer I can't remember now but was based on the Motorola 6800 series processors if I can recall correctly.  And then they showed me a real claim to fame for their store:

Gee, some no-name hack from San Francisco bought an oscilloscope from them.  Who gives? :-P

No, seriously, look closely at that picture above.  If you're not impressed that somewhere, someone was keeping records at HSC for years and years and remembered that kid when he got famous, then I don't know what to tell you.  However, they said the same thing to me (more or less "remember us when you're famous"), though they don't have my name scribbled on a nice large "Name" field like they would have done if I walked into that store back in the '60s too.  Chances are they might have it on some way less interesting credit card log somewhere, but who's to know.

Nevertheless, I spent quite a while browsing this store too, firstly in sheer awe that the arrangement resembles Tanner's so much (but with aisles twice as high, and many more of them) and secondly trying to jog my memory for stuff I could possibly need.

The test bench section and the Self-Serve wire area.  They only ask a couple reasonable things of the test area: let them know ahead of time if you're testing anything with vacuum tubes, and don't leave hot leads lying around.

Aisles upon aisles of stuff, including one barely wider than my shoulders.  Also, mind you, I was homeless most of the day, having checked out of my hotel early that morning and not able to check into the rental house until that evening; as such, I was having to carry all my bags, toiletries, clothes, and my purchases with me at all times up and down the aisles.

Putting All This In Perspective

First off, without the assistance of Raymond, a local buddy of mine who runs and travels out to these stores relatively often (and who also contributed to this relevant thread on the Vintage Computer Forums), I probably would have ended up in some lame stores that wouldn't pay such homage to retro technology and would only be looking to resell last year's Cisco servers, or else some general vintage store that once upon a time had a computer section but now only mostly sells hipster clothes and occasionally gets someone's old laptop once in a great while.  Nevertheless, here is how all these things fit together physically:

It should be noted that Raymond highly recommended St. John's Bar & Grill as a good place to have a burger, especially if you need to ship some of your larger hauls via the FedEx in the same complex.

Also Intriguing To the Music Nerd

For those of you who happen to be band nerds too, it should be noted that the Santa Clara Vanguard, an extremely competitive and highly-ranked drum and bugle corps and an original member of DCI (Drum Corps International), has their headquarters little more than half a mile north of Anchor Electronics, just on the other side of the NVIDIA offices.  If I were ever good enough to make that corps when I was in school, it would have been awfully intriguing for me to explore the tech scene whenever (if ever?) I had a break from practice, though in actuality I can't imagine the members really spending much time in that office compared to out on the rehearsal field or traveling anyway.

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