I made a welcome discovery while wandering a shopping center yesterday: I found an independent computer sales and repair business. Before the Internet and the big box stores, these establishments formed the backbone of the computing community. Are they viable anymore?
I did not get my own personal computer until 1995, midway through my freshman year of college. I finally decided it would be more productive to write papers in my dorm room, rather than hoping a machine was available in the university lab. I could also get connected to the campus network and browse the World Wide Web, which I'd just begun hearing about.
When I was shopping for my first machine, the landscape was completely different. RadioShack was the big name in the electronics retail, and Internet shopping did not yet exist. When I decided I wanted to get a computer, I had to find someone who could help me make educated choices.
I got the help I needed at an independent computer shop. Run out of a storefront on Chicago's North Avenue, it was a playground for my nascent interest in technology. I have forgotten the name of the store, but not the hours I spent there. Every time I needed some help with my computer — upgrades, repairs, even just new software to play with — I would hop on a bus and visit the shop. Hanging out there set a hook in me and put me on the path to working with technology professionally.
More than once when I was visiting, I thought about how cool it would be to own my own PC shop one day. As volume retailers and the online shopping have become the norm, though, I wonder where a small technology business could carve out a niche.
Focusing on sales seems to be a lost cause. Volume retailers have the advantage, with their purchasing power and relative immunity to market fluctuations. I like to think that entrepreneurs can find success by providing technology services, either for consumers or for small businesses. Service firms don't need a retail presence to attract customers, though. Such a business could be marketed online, and services could be rendered at the client location. An investment in a brick-and-mortar location would hardly be needed.
I have a hard time justifying the creation of a sales-and-service storefront like the one I admired in my youth. Creating a physical space like that seems a frivolous use of capital when the work doesn't require it. Do you have fond memories of a locally owned computer shop? Any ideas about how one might survive in today's economy? Are you a business owner who has managed to stay afloat? Let me hear your thoughts in the comments.