Circuit bending master and artist Reed Ghazala has some sobering thoughts on the state of surplus supply shops: “My deep connections in surplus tell me the whole thing is dying.” (See comments on Circuit Bending Tips: Resistance Substitution Wheel is Dead; How to Make Your Own.

That’s sad, as the trend comes just as the generation of MAKE magazine, homebrewed gaming and musical instruments, and hack-a-day are trying to start a new era of of repairing and treasuring old electronics and DIY designs. So, brave CDMers, what do you think? Are these stores dying? Is there anything left to do? Where do you shop for your parts? And has anyone seen a great airfare deal on New York – to – Dayton? I’m going to MECI, and my credit card will never forgive me!

Reed writes:

Any electrobrain, bent or not, OWES THEMSELVES a trip to Mendelson’s, 3rd floor, Dayton, OH. Go with someone who knows CPR… …I’ve been shopping there for 20 years and still haven’t seen it all.

… Mendelson’s is unique in the world (I’ve poked around the planet a little – colored bakelite, fine brass and blue glass make you do this, as well as explain your stash at the border).

There are a lot of really nice smaller outlets with really cool components. They’re great! Mendelson’s, however, is like walking into a vast museum of rare surplus as opposed to an electronics room whose ends can be seen (Mendleson’s is a maze of isles, rooms, counters, bins, racks, spools – and you usually CAN’T see the ends of it all: too distant and too much stuff in the way).

But let me tell you the really bad news, and I’m sorry to be the bearer. My deep connections in surplus tell me the whole thing is dying. And I can see this in the outlets. I’d like to sound the rallying cry, â€Å“Support them!,â€Â? and I do. But this is a reflection of the general trend in user alienation… which end of the screwdriver do I use?

A good example is tin toys. Tin toys, early 1900’s, began the trend in metal tab closure. Shocking at the time. They were not meant to be opened. They were not meant to be REPAIRED, and were routinely discarded. They were garbage.

Cobblers, watch shops, seamstresses – these and countless other repair shops were everywhere. They’re about gone. The repairman-tinkerer is rarer today than ever.

And I don’t limit this to â€Å“old timeyâ€Â? industries. My top-of-line SONY DAT deck (K890ES) was bumped back and forth across the country as SONY tried and tried and tried again to fix the tape transport. My contact inside SONY told me â€Å“They might have one guy and one guy only who really knows something about the deck, you finally hit that guy.â€Â?

BTW, my example of the screwdriver is fact, reported to me by a MIT professor teaching electronics, â€Å“Which end of this do I use?â€Â?

Anyway, the places I buy surplus are either trying to present themselves as designer shops (Goodwill now asks $14 for â€Å“trendyâ€Â? lamps that they used to price at $2, and that sell elsewhere, new, for $8). Or, as in electronic surplus, prices are rising to â€Å“coverâ€Â? declining sales, which, sadly, spells disaster. To those in the industry, this is scarier than PCBs.

A picture is conjured… what would the Victoria’s Secret crowd think of a surplus shop’s radioactive meters, gigantic wire spools and cathode ray tubes tumbling out onto the polished mall floor, right next to the pretty Sharper Image store? The underbelly of technology, even if parked next to the shining sibling Apple store fully dependant upon this hardware, is unacceptable. But it’s a cool picture, eh?

Anyway, at Mendelson’s, project costs are: box $1, rotarys 50¢, pins 25¢, and you have the resistors already (or get a sack for another $1). And the quality makes Radio Shack’s stock look like the sham it is (get a mini NC PB switch and note the lousy casting, poor metals, loose joints, rough plastic moldings and grotesque feel).

Still, this again reflects the trend in question. High-quality, expensive electronic parts don’t sell well in shopping centers aimed at our fashion-struck public. At least RS is there, and provides tools and parts often harder to grab quickly otherwise.

Subversive, too, is considered the nature of artwork and technical knowledge in fascist societies, should one work outside the order. But that is another subject, and until all art materials are considered contraband, Mendelson’s is open. Like I said, get ‘em while they’re hot.

  • http://www.getlofi.com Circuit Master

    There are certainly lots of valid points in the article, but I don't think that the outlook is as grim as its painted.

    Surplus stores that carry quality parts may not be as abundant as Burger Kings are, but if they move their operations on the Internet as well as physical location there is no reason for them to go out of business, except when there is no one to takeover the operations. In most cases they get their stuff by dump trucks from the government or large companies. For almost nothing.

    I would imagine that their profits are not hindered by their original investments. If they jack up the prices its not because they are not doing good and need more money. I think its because they are doing good and are taking advantage of the demand. Take an analogy of a store that is going out of business. They don't jack the prices through the roof in the last month. Instead they cut the prices to liquidate their assets. If in fact the surplus store is not doing well and they are jacking the prices to compensate for that, then they are doomed. So I would start getting worried if they were selling everything very very cheap.

    Lots of people are starting to sell surplus parts on eBay as well. So I wouldn't worry about the supply drying out. And if and when that happens parts are still a plenty thanks to cheap Chinese manufacturers and the power of the Internet. Places like Jameco and MPJA got just about every part imaginable. They are not 50 cents or $1 for a bag, but can be within reason if purchased in lots of 10 or 100. It may not be the military grade quality, specked to withstand a nuclear blast, but the quality is better then radio shack in some cases. And with the competition in the manufacturing sector heating up, it will not be long before companies will strive to provide quality parts at a more reasonable price simply to beat out their competition and get your hard earned American Dollar or Euro.

    As far as trendy stuff goes yeah, pleases like Goodwill are jacking up the prices and who can blame them if the demand is there. Its not like they are basking in gold by selling that lamp for $10 instead of $5. It could be a $100 lamp in the first place. Typically I gage the quality of something by where it was made. If something is stamped USA then it maybe worth the extra cash.

    What makes me sick however is the Pawn Shop Industry. They give you nothing for your stuff, then turn around and sell it for whatever it fetches on eBay. You may as well just buy everything on eBay and stop wasting gas driving around looking for that perfect deal.

    Art materials as contraband is doubtful. Unless you are trying to fly with that stuff. I'd say that we are at least 20-30 years away from a totalitarian police state. I would be more worried about the robots taking over and converting us into fuel cells. Or the space aliens sucking the life out of us like those Juice Boxes that you got when your mom packed your lunch in middle school.

  • bliss

    Maybe the "totalitarian" part has yet to be birthed completely, but the police state is in full effect in many places throughout the U.S. Unmanned aerial drones flying and spying over Los Angeles. Cameras, EVERYWHERE. I went into a bank that I'd never been to before the other day and there were cameras at every conceivable position and angle. The only place I could look to hide my face if I wanted to was at the floor, and even then the cameras would capture a pretty good profile. Taking my picture and my fingerprint just to be safe, to protect me and others, is what they would say if I asked, "Why?" Which, of course, is BS (pardon my English), what's being protected is power. Anyway — Big Brother, Big Uncle, Big Mom, or whatever you want to call it is in full effect and the purchase of mult-purpose materials and supplies is definitely on the radar of the authorities — especially if one who is not a business buys in bulk.

    Right now in this grand old land of ours, which is not so free anymore, high school students are increasingly being limited to what kind of experiments they can carry out on their own in chemistry classes and labs. It is to the point now that students must watch teachers or other qualified and authorized persons carry out demonstrations of experiments. Student participation is extremely limited. I read an article in the New York Times several months ago about a kid who orders all of his supplies on the internet and carries out his experiments in his parent's garage. He cannot legally buy glass beakers in his state from standard suppliers, so he purchases them out of state and at antique shops. This boy has a legitimate reason and desire to do science and yet for the most part he is being told that it is illegal to do science and that he cannot be trusted to do science. The story of this child and others like him is a sure sign that our country is becoming fascist. How are future scientists in this country supposed to compete with those of other countries if they cannot have access to equipment, supplies, proper labs and instruction? Same thing goes for electronics and the arts.

    The excuse that there is no money, which is usually termed as funding, for arts and science in the nations high schools doesn't fly with me. Billions of dollars are spent every year getting people to buy their Budweiser, watch football games, barbecue while drinking Coors Light, and having a family night in on the weekends watching the TV show Cops, while the daughter is enamored with her father's tattoo that says "P-A-T-H-E-T-I-C B-O-R-N". "My dad is so coooool."

    Unless children get a chance to peer through a microscope, understand what happens during chemical reactions from experiments that they themselves carry out, they may never discover that they have a talent for science. Similar can be said about electronics and the arts.

    The nation certainly is hurtling toward a fascist state, but maybe the promise of the internet will enable its citizens to derail the trend and reclaim their sovereignty. Maybe.

  • http://una-love.com Michael Una

    I usually have a good time at American Science & Surplus in Chicago. They're not exclusively electronics, you can get other interesting stuff like pyrex beakers and military doodads.

    they have other locations and a website at:
    http://www.sciplus.com/

    Last time I was there they had a bin full of Teddy Ruxpin audiotape players with some of the mechanical stuff still attached.

  • Chris_B

    The conspiracy nutjob overtones here sure aint gonna do much to win new converts to DIY electronics…

  • http://anti-theory.com q r ghazala

    CircuitMaster – thank you for your comments. But I think you’ll see I’m referring, primarily, to walk-in warehouses (still, to address your thoughts: when businesses discuss closing-down, when they relocate for lower overhead, cut their workforce, sub-let their corners, reduce their electronic stock and start selling Precious Moments garbage instead of electronics… no, that’s not a sign of “thrivingâ€Â? regardless of how their higher pricing might be interpreted – but I sure wish you were right as I’d love to see these warehouse dinosaurs grow instead of shrink, and it would be great if competition (?) was increasing, as you suggest, instead of domestic competitors (with new, valid ideas) being crushed by an “outsource economyâ€Â? via overseas product-centralization factories (same location regardless of brand name) and domestic “super-storesâ€Â? (as in the mega-WalMarts) setting the pace for manufacturing and retail – the pallid “New American Landscapeâ€Â? as maybe you’ve heard termed in the finance news).

    Nothing new. There were loads of car builders here a few generations ago. GM ate ‘em up! I’m still waiting for the Pinto museum – that classic “dent me� blue is not to be forgotten.

    Anyway, it is true – I also do reflect upon a general trend in salvage and tool awareness, as well as accessibility: What tool/part is this? How do I get/use it? My inbox is flooded with these questions. And I have to routinely report that such-and-such outlet no longer carries this-or-that. But artists are resourceful – I’m not too worried about finding my next “fix� (ever craft your own inks/pigments/paints, solder with a campfire nail, or make a wattle fence? Cool and fun).

    CircuitMaster is right to point-out the internet. Fabulous resource, of course. But it might come at a cost. And there IS that weather vane. From my spot on the warehouse fence, it clearly points to “Get ‘em while they’re hot!� My advice remains.

    The internet’s descriptions and pictures (tho often inaccurate – more in a moment) can be great. I linked to two sources in my post, and the appendix of my book will list one of the best sets of electronics URLs around. Here’s about 100 to look through: http://www.anti-theory.com/links/ My concerns are twofold, however, as described. In case I was not clear:

    1- the walk-thru surplus warehouses I frequent are in turmoil (my immediate examples are the two majors near me: Mendelson’s and Pembletons, the former discussing a move to save costs and the latter in the midst of moving for the same reason, and for the second time). So I’m not “imagining� here at all. These are my flesh-and-blood contacts, DEEP inside the surplus industry, explaining to me changes I see happening to locations, process and stock.

    2- my own (and other teachers’) observations of students’ increasing lack of tool know-how; this trend is a sure result of the “no user serviceable parts� mentality within industry. Want an example? I still get people writing me to extol the “virtues� of using a hot soldering iron instead of a drill for making holes in plastic. I led that horse to water long ago.

    I’ve been shopping surplus electronics for nearly 40 years now. If I saw more rather than less components at Radio Shack, if the high-quality new parts outlets were booming instead of drying-up (i.e., the local Hughes Peters, fabulous parts house, gone forever), if the warehouses were expanding rather than tightening their belts (all over the country I was used to piling parts on the counter and getting a general, ball-park price – now things are counted item-by-item), and if people could still easily find, say, mini crescent wrench sets (Sears; extinct), hollow-shaft nut driver sets (RS; extinct), that damn resistance wheel (extinct), etc., etc,. etc., I’d sing a different song.

    The reality is that these things are harder to find -in person- than they used to be.

    If you’ve actually been to a fabulous walk-thru surplus warehouse you’re aware of the impossibility of cataloging all the various stuff in stock. Just no way! Can’t stand on the loading dock to see new arrivals online, either. You’ll never see the touchy stuff that comes in (not that you need “cop fooler� switchblades, illegal frequency receivers or over-powered, license-only surgical lasers).

    And do you see the disclaimers online, “may differ from picture�? In defense of online retailers, it’s difficult to keep up on all this, and depict every item that arrives. Still, while the pot you ordered IS a 500k, the shaft turns out to be only 1/4� long, not the 1� shown in the (generic) picture (example from my own experience). Bummer.

    In person, you can see what you’re buying, important in surplus if important anywhere (just WHY is this in surplus, anyway?). Plus – there are people there to help you find/test items, you see all the short-supply that won’t make a catalog, and you generate relationships, good relationships, with visible humans (OK, that isn’t always an asset, especially if the guy talking to you uses WWII solenoid cleaner for mouthwash. You think I’m kidding, don’t you?).

    Anyway, if the equation, at best, is that walk-thru will be eliminated as walk-thru businesses move to the internet for survival’s sake, the trade-off is not without consequence. And it is this consequence I address.

    Hamfests, BTW, though not what they used to be by any means, are still good targets for walk-through parts and salvage. Google “hamfest (your closest big city’s name)� and go to one of not familiar!

    Goodwill: I’ve always supported Goodwill (and Salvation Army) with donations as well as patronage. In the lamp example, Goodwill was asking more than what the lamp retailed for in general, when brand new. And this is a trend, now more than ever, at Goodwill.

    They’re still one of the best of their kind. I’m simply uncomfortable with their refit to WalMart-ize their presentation, and to over-price trendy donations. As I discussed with a local manager, this blurs Goodwill’s mission, which, at one time, was to guarantee the “needy� bargain prices on all common items. And at one time, that guarantee was watertight.

    BTW, art materials are already contraband (assuming the reader knows art materials by far escape the campus art store), and this IS a fascist society, more so every day.

    Pot is one of the best-known art materials. Why is it contraband? American tobacco kills more Columbians than their pot (or cocaine) kills Americans (no confirmed pot deaths on record as opposed to 500,000/yr here from tobacco). Canada, Hawaii, domestic, whatever. So OUR protection obviously isn’t the issue here! But someone’s is. Corporate/Gov’t fascism. Clearly.

    Not an art material, you say? Well, you’ll need to take that up with Louis Armstrong, Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, Bob Marley, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, plus… Bing Crosby! And all your friends.

    Go to jail. Submit to “forfeiture.� Lose everything including, perhaps, your family, while you’re gone. And you thought the Dark Ages were over? History will paint our time as it does the days of The Inquisition. The spirit of our government will hang its head in shame, as will those who voted these persons into office (pity these voters; being disinformed is the character of repression).

    Still – is pot too esoteric an example for an art material? OK. I’m a pyro-technician. Amateur, but I can make a good gerb, fountain and candle. The materials for my art here are harder to acquire than they used to be. Much harder. I believe this, also, can be traced to American fascism: nothing comes from vacuum.

    Not new, this cycle. Imagery itself is an art material. Mapplethorpe? Andres Serrano? How about H Bosch’s work for the Church, done “brush-in-cheek,� disguising ecclesiastic insult?

    Science and art books are being banned from schools, experiments and discussions on evolution are forbidden, even medical studies are thwarted via this dark cloud of intellectual annulment.

    “Conspiracy nut jobs� (thank you) are often the best thing we have for forward motion, especially in light of the alternative: the lax write-offs that serve as nothing at all.

    Remember Deep Throat (er, Whitehouse version) and Watergate? Or Kent State? – Gov. Rhodes and the Guard eventually signed an apology to the families of the four murdered students due to “nut jobs� and their nutty observations.

    And totally to the contrary – circuit-bending, and to a similar and increasing degree, all DIY work, reflects a deviation from the norm, as most people don’t DIY. Speaking for myself only, it is the likes of Tesla, Rife, Newton and Franklin that I found most interesting and encouraging in DIY design – people way outside of the norm, and all with good reason to be wary of (and to speak of) conspiracy! I’m very, very glad that I was encouraged to walk the alternate path by such people, and that these mentors, I guess, were nut jobs. Hmmm… this may explain my affinity to squirrels.

    Ya know, I’m not scared at all of sending timid little children running away here with classic thoughts of social awareness or artistic freedom scaring their pants off, teetering in shock and never to return. I have more faith in people than that – I doubt this is the nursery someone presumes.

    Benders and artists in general are aware of fascist repression, historic and current, within the arts, always responding in kind – and “Resistor Wheel� takes on a new meaning. DIY ;-)

    I rambled,

    q r ghazala

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    I'll be instantly suspicious of conspiracy theorists, too, Chris, except for two real and verifiable trends. The first has been a crackdown on anything remotely having to do with chemistry, which is potentially bad news even for DIYers because it's reached so wide. Fears of drugs (think meth labs) and terrorism have led some to ban sale of Erlenmeyer flasks. Anyone afraid of a glass container is the one who's actually deserving of the *real* nutjob status. (Look, he's got a BEAKER!! RUN!!!!)

    The second trend is the closed-box approach to electronics, largely centered around DRM. This has been a long time coming, and I think that fear of how things actually work is probably a more powerful force than the pro-DRM / anti-reverse-engineering crowd, but it's serious.

    Those two things said, the biggest problem is economic sources. But I posted Reed's comments precisely because I figured some people would have a more optimistic take. I absolutely agree with a lot of your concerns, Reed — but I'm equally interested in the possibility that cheaper small-scale fabrication and Internet distribution offer. I expect we can all agree that we hope the new, pro-DIY trends and the burgeoning DIY community eventually outweighs everything else.

  • http://anti-theory.com q r ghazala

    Wow, don’t get me wrong. The DIY community is exceptionally strong. I'm not worried about the designers and artists. Maybe the best right now in history – certainly the most world-aware. With good teachers, all is possible.

    Resources are vast, even if the sales systems are changing (as they are). Still, it's my job to reflect upon issues that pass here. Project parts, the finding and using, is a constant issue. And if this supply is metered by attitudes in society, well, fair game too for discussion.

    I’m not trying to discourage anyone! I want people to see the cool places while they’re still strong (they do disappear overnight sometimes). Everyone who’s shopped surplus for a few decades is aware of all this – it’s not news "in house."

    (Peter – tell me when you see Mendelson’s – I’ll try to meet you there. You’ll need a guide. Maybe we should form a visiting troupe?)

    Now, would I write a DIY book if I weren't optimistic? A person can be optimistic and still see trends, respond to trends, speak of trends. In fact, I intend to market a small bench tool for benders/hobbyists via small-scale fabrication, as to your example, Peter. But it will be knocked-off if it becomes popular, and I know this going in. I’m still doing it. Now THAT’S optimism.

    We are in flux, always. My arts hinge upon this flux. I examine it. Ride it. Think about it. Write about it. Sleep on it.

    My comments on society are nothing more than the winds of change blowing. We need change. But, sure, I'm optimistic – I'll still plan a camp in the rain. I'll just bring good tarps!

    I know the readership here is super-creative. MAKE’s readers, like my EMI audience, are very dear to me. I understand the drive. Don’t worry if I hop-scotch. This is what happens when I don’t have editors.

    So… make good stuff. Share it.

    q r ghazala

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Thanks for the words of encouragement, Reed (and others, as well). Hey, I have my gloom and doom moments, too — don't ask about politics. :) Some of these trends you have to be realistic about. But fortunately there are positive forces as well as negative ones.

  • Eric

    Interesting observations. In the Phoenix, AZ area surplus hunters should check out Apache Reclamation & Electronics – an amazing place.

    Also, check out Don Lancaster's website:

    http://www.tinaja.com

    Don's got a lot of suggestions for success at surplus auctions – great places to pick up bargains before the surplus dealers even get to them.

  • stryd_one

    Great posts, thanks guys!

    I get a warm fuzzy feeling reading the "conspiracy theory" aka "what's actually, factually, going on right in front of the noses of the unknowing, gullible and daft majority" posts. It's nice to know that somewhere out there, someone is switched on.

  • http://www.getlofi.com Circuit Master

    If I am not mistaking, it seems that the whole surplus warehouse dying out observation by Reed is more or less an analogy of the modern society's degradation. At least in the fields of technological competency and critical thinking. I am not talking about the ability to use the gadgets, but rather the aptitude to repair and service what they have and the knowledge of how things work. A person may be able to PIMP out their MySpace profile, but they have no idea how to fix a leaky pipe in their house.

    I dont even know if they teach Shop classes in High Schools anymore, probably not cause some dumb ass didn't follow the safety rules and cut their finger off. Now everyone is SCARED of the having saws and they don't want a lawsuit brought on.

    I guess all of this can be boiled down to the FEAR that has been instilled in all of us. Fear of breaking something more, thats why we take it to a service technician, whom in some cases makes things worse and overcharges.

    FEAR of getting hurt if you open that TV set, or pop the cover in your radio. That is not an unsubstantiated fear, but if basic safety rules are followed then there is really nothing to be afraid off.

    Its really sad actually, we are all consumers that depend on someone else for something or other. We depend on the tel cos for the Internet, depend on the Energy Sector for power, depend on the Food sector for our packaged produce.

    I agree with Reed and I blame the mass media for poisoning the minds of people with useless junk information like Advertisements and fake news. Pushing products that people don't need with promises of making their lives better, fuller, and easier.

    There is really no way to change this trend except to stop buying stuff that you don't need.

    As far as the state of the Arts. I don't really see much change there. Artists have always been the rebels of the society. People who create it have always been oppressed. Nothing new, the US just got spoiled after the 60s with freedom of expression. The hippie revolution is over. Our kind has lost.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Shop classes are endangered here, but not because of fears of the equipment. Everyone thinks these kind of technical skills are somehow not worthy of our modern information society, when it's exactly the opposite. But then, a lot of people have an either/or mentality — why ask people to choose between liberal arts and, say, welding, when you're likely to need both!

    Yes, all these trends are potentially disturbing. But on the other hand, I think there is a subculture with incredibly deep, broad skills and interests … people with chops in programming, violin, French cooking, carpentry … it's kind of scary, actually. But for the rest of us, the knowledge and communities are out there; the culture may try to narrow what we're supposed to be doing, but we also have some incredible tools to reverse the tide.

  • jbrandt

    Boston area folks could do far worse than to check out the MIT Flea, which runs the third Sunday of every month from May through October. (The last of the year was the other day.)

    They have a web site now:

    http://mitflea.com/

    I usually go and sell stuff I scrounge from places around the area, and hardly a Flea goes by that I am not surprised by the breadth of weird electronic stuff on hand.

  • http://anti-theory.com q r ghazala

    I second the motion on American Science and Surplus whether online, paper catalog (fabulous!), or walk-in (great!). A must-see if in Chicago.

    Speaking of salvage, I guess you heard that everyone fell down last week in Chicago: the wind stopped. That's a salvaged joke. Hey, it was free.

    Anyway – this is where I got the majority of my glass eyes (years ago; sold by weight in bags). Also radioactive blue-glow doorbell switches, glass tube lasers, fine rubber lizards, giant photo cells and loads more. AS&S is something special.

    I haven't been to the MIT flea, but I hear it's a goodie.

    q r ghazala

  • http://www.block4.com Malte Steiner

    Not mentionend, or I missed it, the rather new european lead free regulation (RoHS) which causes some further uncertainy. I already had some parts not available due to that like PC/104 devices from Asia.

    But in general I made the same observations on popular outlets here in Germany as Conrad Elektronik, which changes more to consumer boutique stuff, the parts section gets smaller and smaller.

  • http://robotporn.de Philip

    Are there "surplus stores" in Germany at all? I don't think so. There are just shops selling cheap new China-made junk or overpriced electronics stores like Conrad but nothing really like the surplus stores described in American blogs.

    Maybe that's due to economic differences. I don't really see that surplus goods are produced here at all, or if, they might be directly sold in former east block states.

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