Time is running out for a beloved Houston electronics store, but its owners are struggling to the end

Time is running out for a beloved Houston electronics store, but its owners are struggling to the end

Entering the Electronic Parts Outlet is like stepping into a museum, well, aside from the shelves filled with microprocessors, circuit boards, electric motors, and other components stacked on the beams.

In front of the cash register stands a working tube tester, where customers bring vacuum tubes collected from old TVs, amplifiers and radios to see if they still work. In the back, you’ll find Cold War-era oscilloscopes ripped from decommissioned Navy ships. Near the entrance, a WWII-era crank telephone rings its twin near the back of the store. (And no, those aren’t for sale).

The Electronic Parts Outlet – EPO to its fans – is a survivor of another era, when do-it-yourselfers and hobbyists chattered at radio amateurs, repaired computers, and restored classic TVs. But there is also the danger of following the path of countless other mom-and-pop electronics stores that have disappeared from city centers, malls and business districts in recent decades.

Like all small players, EPO is under pressure from chains like Best Buy and e-commerce giants like Amazon. But for the EPO, falling electronics prices not only make it harder to compete with large retailers, it also undermines a key customer base by making gadgets easier and often cheaper to replace than repair.

COVID-19 also didn’t help, pulling shoppers away from the cramped, narrow aisles of the store

“This business is on the decline,” admitted EPO co-owner Chris Macha. “I have to be honest with you, it’s tough.”

One of a kind

The EPO is one of a kind in Houston and possibly the United States. Founded in 1985 – Macha started working there in 1999 and bought it with Rick Zamarrippa in 2013 – the shop has become a fixture in the area’s geek culture.

Customers with technical expertise conduct seminars on everything from vacuum tube technology to “coffee science”. The store hosts technology exchange meetings and “battle against robots” competitions in which robots try to tear each other apart and promotes them to a mailing list with around 2,000 subscribers..

EPO’s clientele ranges from professional to student, from collector to artist. Macha said he sold parts to oilfield technicians looking to repair well drilling equipment, a medical technician working on an MRI machine at Texas Medical Center, and a film producer looking for props.

The EPO is so full of old and new items that it’s notoriously hard to find what you’re looking for. But that’s okay: hunting is its own reward.

On HoustonChronicle.com: Wounded by the change in tastes and the pandemic, the retailer adapts on the fly

A glass shelf contains dozens of elaborate kits made from polished sheet metal to make models of the Eiffel Tower, the Beatles drums or vintage cars. You’ll come across dozens of classic radios, a Japanese pachinko machine from the 1960s, and steampunk masks that look like they are made of gears and pipes.

You may also find an old fog horn that works. But, if you appreciate your eardrums, don’t lean directly on it as you turn the handle.

Iris Story, 65, first came to EPO in the mid-1990s looking for a project engine for one of his students in Odyssey of the Mind, a global initiative that teaches young people from kindergarten to college age to solve problems and think critically.

She recalled that Macha greeted her right away, put her on the mailing list, and took a tour of the store, jaw-dropping her on endless shelves filled with vintage components and gear.

The story soon became a regular, going with his students to EPO for cables, motors, circuit boards, and hobby kits. As a result, her home is filled with EPO artifacts, including a Victrola phonograph.

“When I go there to buy something, I get exposed to other things,” Story said. “I went back there once and spent $ 400 just on… things. And it’s not just me! “

You begin

Long-time customers say the store hasn’t changed since the original owners, Michele and Daniel Bretch, opened it in its original location, just a few blocks near the store’s current location on Fondren Road. From the start, longtime clients said, it was bizarre and messy.

The EPO has been monitoring consumer electronics trends over the years. In its first incarnation in the 1980s, it was a destination for radio amateurs and CB radio amateurs. Dan Johnson, 56, was one of EPO’s first clients as a teenager and a fan of radio amateurs. He was passionate and came back almost every weekend, he said, even when he became an adult and got a job in the oilfield services industry.

“Even if I didn’t buy anything, I’d stay on the weekends,” Johnson said.

With the changing times, the focus of the store has also changed. As the boom in personal computers began and hobbyists were building their own systems, EPO stocked up on those components.

When Macha and Zamarripa bought the store from the Bretches, Johnson said they introduced older technology, something the original owners had done in the beginning. The Bretches could not be reached for comment.

Johnson moved to Missouri in June to start a new career as a long-haul truck driver. He said he misses his weekend visits to the EPO and hopes his driving job will eventually get him through. The last thing he bought was, like the first, linked to the radio.

“I bought a lot of things from them; they treated everyone like gold, “she said.” I really miss those guys.

Time is running out

It is unclear whether the EPO will be available when Johnson returns. Macha said he went into “survival mode” to try to keep the store running, but EPO faces daunting trends for consumers.

The global consumer electronics market is huge, estimated at over $ 1 trillion by market research firm Global Market Insights. But the industry’s transition to online sales is accelerating, stating that retailer after retailer has been selling consumer electronics and components to build and repair them.

Most important among them: RadioShack. The retailer began selling amateur radio components in Fort Worth in 1921 and, at its peak, had thousands of stores across the country as it expanded into general electronics parts, consumer electronics, and cell phones.

But after the failures in 2015 and 2017, the chain almost disappeared. All that’s left is a handful of stores run by independent retailers. and a website owned by Retail Ecommerce Ventures, which owns defunct brands such as Radio Shack, Pier One, Stein Mart and Dress Barn

Other national chains, such as Circuit City and CompUSA, have also imploded. Earlier this year, California-based Fry’s Electronics closed its three locations in the Houston area.

Many local electronics stores have also closed their doors over the years. Only a few remain in Houston, including EPO, Ace Electronics, which dates back to 1964; JPM supply; and Directron, which is mainly mail order but also has a walk-in shop.

In addition to industry trends, the EPO was hit by local events. Hurricane Harvey in 2017 didn’t flood the store, but it knocked out many of EPO’s commercial customers. Then, Black Friday 2019, a customer trying to park accidentally accelerated and passed through one of the painted EPO windows.

The showcase was closed until January 2020. “Customers thought we were out of business,” Macha said.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic. Like most retailers, EPO traffic has plummeted. It has yet to fully recover, averaging around 80 customers today, down from 220 customers before the pandemic.

COVID-19, meanwhile, has claimed a particular source of business, school projects, after forcing schools to close.

“Students came often, from elementary to college,” Macha said. “Not much anymore.”

Fight to the death

So far, Macha and Zamarrippa have avoided firing any of the store’s 11 employees, but it’s hard to fill jobs when employees leave.

The loss of EPO would leave a difficult hole in the local tech scene to fill. On a recent Saturday afternoon, for example, five teams of robotics enthusiasts gathered in the parking lot for a “battle bot” competition.

The teams, some made up of children and parents, placed small radio-controlled robots equipped with wedges, circular saws and hammers in plexiglass cabinets that served as arenas. The goal: to disable the opponents.

Sparks flew and parts. Tears flowed among the losers, who entered the EPO to purchase replacement components for the next round.

Bill Jameson, another longtime client, said he worked as a business and marketing consultant for Macha and Zamarripa. Jameson, 80, is a former director of HAL-PC, the legendary Houston computer users club that was the largest of its kind in the country until he succumbed in 2014 to changing habits in personal technology.

On HoustonChronicle.com: How the Houstonians scored the elusive PlayStation 5

EPO needs better marketing, Jameson said, but what makes EPO unique – the crazy jumble of long-lost parts, gadgets and technology and the treasure hunt experience – is hard to market. While some consumers might be dazzled by all of this, others would find it overwhelming, frustrating, and not worth buying.

“They like the eclectic approach,” Jameson said. “But at the same time, that’s their worst enemy.”

For now, the change is not in the cards for EPO. Macha said she’s just trying to meet payroll and keep the lights on, with little time to devise marketing strategies, plan new ventures, or explore different business models.

“I want this business to survive,” Macha said. “I have invested a lot of my life in this. We are just doing everything possible to move forward. “

dsilverman@outlook.com

twitter.com/dsilverman

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