Time’s running out for a beloved Houston electronics shop, but its owners are fighting to the end

Going to an electronic parts store is very similar to entering a museum – except for shelves filled with microprocessors, printed circuit boards, electric motors and other components stacked on rafters.

Opposite the cash register sits a working lamp tester, where customers bring vacuum tubes obtained from old TVs, amplifiers and radios to check if they work. Behind you will find Cold War-era oscilloscopes ripped from decommissioned Navy ships. A World War II telephone rings near the entrance at the back of the store. (And no, they’re not for sale).

Electronic Parts Outlet – an EPO for its fans – has survived another time when home-made and amateur enthusiasts killed radio amateurs, repaired computers and restored classic TVs. But it’s also a danger to go the way of countless other electronics stores that have disappeared from malls, shopping malls and commercial areas in recent decades.

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

COVID-19 also did not help, driving customers out of the narrow narrow aisles of the store

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

One of a kind

The EPO is one of a kind in Houston and possibly in the United States. Founded in 1985 – Macha started working there in 1999 and bought it with Rick Zamarip in 2013 – the store has become an indispensable element in the culture of geeks in the area.

Customers with technical experience conduct workshops on everything from vacuum tube technology to “coffee science”. The store hosts technology-sharing meetings and “combat boot” competitions, in which robots try to break each other up, and advertises them on a mailing list of about 2,000 subscribers..

The EPO clientele ranges from professional to student, from collector to artist. Macha said he sold the parts to technicians at oil fields who want to repair 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 crowded with old and new items that it is known to be difficult to find what you are looking for. But this is normal: hunting is the reward.

At HoustonChronicle.com: Affected by changing tastes and a pandemic, the retailer is adapting to the summer

One glazed shelf contains dozens of intricate sets of polished metal sheets to create models of the Eiffel Tower, Beatles drums or classic cars. You will encounter dozens of classic radios, a Japanese car pachinko 60’s and steampunk-style masks that look as if made of gears and tubes.

You can also find an old foggy beep that works. But if you value your eardrums, don’t lean right over them by turning the knob.

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

She recalled that Maha immediately greeted her, added her to the mailing list and took a tour of the store, leaving her on endless shelves full of accessories and antique equipment.

Soon Story became a regular, going with his students to the EPO for wires, motors, circuit boards and hobby kits. As a result, her house is filled with EPO finds – including a Victrola phonograph.

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

Beginnings

Longtime customers say the store hasn’t changed since the original owners, Michelle and Daniel Brech, opened it in its original location, just a few blocks near the store’s current home on Fondren Road. From the beginning, as long-time customers said, he was quirky and messy.

The EPO has been tracking consumer electronics trends for years. In its first incarnation in the 80s, it was a destination for broadcasters and CBs. 56-year-old Dan Johnson was one of the first EPO customers in his teens and a radio lover. He said he was fascinated and came back almost every weekend, even as an adult and got a job in the oilfield services industry.

“Even if I didn’t buy anything, I would go in on the weekends,” Johnson said.

Over time, the store’s attention changed. When the personal computer boom began, and amateurs created their own systems, the EPO stockpiled these components.

When Macha and Zamaripa bought the store in Brech, Johnson said they brought in more antique technology that the original owners did in the beginning. Bretches could not be reached for comment.

Johnson moved to Missouri in June to begin a new career as a trucker. He said he misses his EPO visits over the weekend and hopes his driver’s seat will eventually make him pass. The last thing he bought was, like the very first, related to radio.

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

Time goes by

Whether there will be an EPO when Johnson returns is unknown. Maha said he has switched to “survival mode” to try to keep the store, but the EPO is facing terrible consumer trends.

The global consumer electronics market is huge, valued by Global Market Insights at more than $ 1 trillion. But the industry’s transition to online sales is accelerating by claiming to be a retailer that sells consumer electronics and components for their assembly and repair.

The most famous among them: RadioShack. Retailers began selling ham radio components in Fort Worth in 1921, and at its peak there were thousands of stores across the country as it expanded to include general electronics, consumer electronics and mobile phones.

But after bankruptcies in 2015 and 2017, the chain almost disappeared. There are only a few stores left that are run by independent dealers. and a website owned by Retail Ecommerce Ventures that holds non-existent brick and mortar brands such as Radio Shack, Pier One, Stein Mart and Dress Barn

Other national networks, such as Circuit City and CompUSA, also exploded. Earlier this year, California-based Fry’s Electronics closed three offices in Houston.

Many local electronics parts stores have also closed their doors for years. Only a few remained in Houston, including the 1964 EPO, Ace Electronics; JPM supply; and Directron, which is mostly done by mail but also has a store.

In addition to industry trends, EPOs have been affected by local events. Hurricane Harvey in 2017 did not flood the store, but it brought out many EPO commercial customers. Then, on Black Friday 2019, a customer trying to park accidentally accelerated and drove through one of the painted EPO windows.

The storefront was boarded up by January 2020. “Customers thought we weren’t working,” Maha said.

Then the coronavirus pandemic began. As with most retailers, EPO traffic has declined. It has not yet fully recovered, today averaging about 80 customers, compared to 220 customers before the pandemic.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 demanded a specific source of business, school projects, after forcing schools to close.

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

Fight to the death

So far, Macha and Zamarip have avoided firing 11 store employees, but it is difficult to take jobs when employees leave.

The loss of the EPO will leave a hole in the local technology scene that is hard to fill. For example, on a recent Saturday afternoon, five teams of robotics enthusiasts gathered in the parking lot for the “combat boots” competition.

Teams, some of them children and parents, placed small radio-controlled robots equipped with wedges, saws and hammers in plexiglass cabinets that served as arenas. Goal: Disable opponents.

Sparks and details flew. Tears flowed among the losers who moved to the EPO to buy spare parts for the next round.

Bill Jameson, another longtime client, said he has served as a marketing and business consultant at Macha and Zamarripa. The 80-year-old Jameson is a former director of HAL-PC, Houston’s legendary computer user club, which was the largest of its kind in the country until 2014 when it succumbed to a change in personal technology habits.

At HoustonChronicle.com: How the Houstonians killed the elusive PlayStation 5

The EPO requires better marketing, Jameson said, but what makes the EPO unique – the insane fuss of parts, gadgets and long-lost technology, and the treasure hunt experience – is hard to sell on the market. While some consumers may be surprised by all this, others find it overwhelming, frustrating and not worth the effort to buy anything.

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

No changes are currently planned for the EPO. Maha said he is just trying to get paid and keep the light on by having little time to develop marketing strategies, plan new initiatives or explore different business models.

“I want this business to survive,” Maha said. “I put a lot of my life into it. We are just doing our best to keep it going. “

dsilverman@outlook.com

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