Still Not Heaven, but Not Hell, Either

Back in 2014, when I was living in Medford, Oregon, I visited Portland and wrote a post about sources for electronic components in the “big” city (https://mostlydiyrf.com/2014/10/not-exactly-heaven-but/). Compared to sources down-state where only Radio Shack was living out its last year of brick-and-mortar existence, Portland was awash in parts sources. Alas, six years later, most of what I found then is gone. Surely this has to do with consumer habits and the rapid rise in online buying, because the three-county Portland metro area is alive with high-tech and electronics activity.

I now live in Portland, the epicenter of the “Silicon Forest”–Oregon’s answer to Silicon Valley. Within a ten-mile radius of my QTH are the Tektronix headquarters, Intel (the largest private employer in the state), Lattice Semiconductor headquarters, FLIR Systems, a big Quorvo campus, a major Maxim Integrated plant, dozens of lesser-known tech firms, Linus Torvalds (the mercurial and irascible inventor of Linux), Jason Milldrum (NT7S, the developer of the widely-used Si5351 library), and all the authors and contributors of Experimental Methods of Radio Frequency Design. Every once in a while, I feel a tingling of RF in my lymph nodes coming from the energy of this technology vortex.

What is almost completely missing from all this now are retail sources for components, even popcorn types such as 2N2222 transistors, 741 op amps, and 4148 diodes. Back in 2014, Fry’s Electronics was the place to go for almost anything one might need except for special-purpose parts. It had the full NTE line, the complete line of Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and the sensors that are part of those ecosystems. There were aisles of Molex, Amphenol, and JST connectors, still more aisles of every sort of cable you’d ever want, another aisle for wire, including several gauges of magnet wire, an aisle of test equipment including digital oscilloscopes, half an aisle of soldering gear and supplies, a five-foot rack of shrink tubing of every size and color, and the largest supply of PC gaming and build-your-own computer components (motherboards, disk drives, power supplies, graphics cards, etc.) in the entire state of Oregon. Batteries? Every kind you can think of and many you didn’t know existed. There was a big long shelf of various sizes of gel cells and LIPO packs, and a charger suitable for each one. There was another few shelves of plastic and metal enclosures from Bud, Hammond, and others. There was lots more, but this was the best-stocked and largest array of electronic components, materials, and supplies I had ever seen and had the pleasure of patronizing.

And now? Gone. All gone. If you go into a Fry’s today, you’ll find mostly-empty shelves and displays. Imagine a Walmart with ninety percent of the merchandise missing, and that’s what a Fry’s looks like now. I have no idea how it’s possible they stay in business at all. They still have a few big-screen TVs for sale, but even their inventory of consumer-grade PCs and laptops is down to almost nothing. There’s some conjecture they’re just waiting out their leases before they close for good. Officially, the company says nothing about the transformation that’s taken place over the past year and a half. To my utter disgust, they’ve instructed their employees to lie when asked about it. “Oh, we’re having trouble with our vendors,” they’d say. “The boss says they’ll be pallets and pallets of stuff any day now.” I heard that line from several check-out clerks when I was still bothered to drive the ten miles just to leave empty handed. It’s possible the employees and even their boss believed that insulting twaddle coming from higher-ups, but it was the same well-practiced answer every time. Pobrecitos y pobrecitas! 

Also gone now is Oregon Electronics. They were a much-smaller outfit, but they still had ten or twenty times more than a typical Radio Shack would have. Like Fry’s, they also carried the full NTE line and had a respectable assortment of cables, connectors, hardware, supplies, and micro-controller (Arduino and RPi) paraphernalia. Their location was a bit out of the way in a business and light-industry park, and the company had the feel of one started and run by enthusiasts rather than experienced business people. In spite of a useful inventory, they may have been under-capitalized and couldn’t hold out long enough to reach profitability equilibrium. Just as likely, they couldn’t compete with eBay, Amazon, Digikey, Sparkfun, and Adafruit for the hobbyist dollar. But for cryin’ out loud! The population of the Portland metropolitan area is almost two-and-a-half million people. One would think it could support at least one establishment like Oregon Electronics.

That brings us to the one bright spot on the electronics-supply landscape: Surplus Gizmos. They have some of the NTE line and some Arduino stuff, but what they mostly have is about 8,800 square feet of customer-accessible space filled with nearly-every kind of surplus electronic parts you could want, some of them decades old and otherwise unobtainium. There’s at least three times that floor space in the back stacked with stuff to be sorted and put out for sale. Here is where the still-valuable offscourings of the Silicon Forest come to wait their turn to once-again have electrons pumped through them in the workshops, Ham shacks, and laboratories of techno-geeks and electronics enthusiasts.

Surplus Gizmos is located in Hillsboro on the western side of the Portland metro area, and home to Intel and several-dozen other tech firms. It’s about five or six miles from Tektronix in Beaverton, and not surprisingly much of the stock at Gizmos is from that source. Here are some highlights:

  • About ten feet of linear shelf space devoted to computer and RF crystals–most of them the older and larger HC-49 type rather than the squat computer-grade ones. This includes a large bin box filled with what must be a few thousand 3.579545MHz “colorburst” crystals with ground wires presoldered.
  • Nearly twenty feet of bin boxes filled with potentiometers, including about three feet of multi-turn precision types.
  • Perhaps forty feet of both large and small transformers of all kinds from “heavy iron” ones for high-voltage power supplies to tiny current and signal-isolation ones.
  • Maybe sixty linear feet of capacitors of all kinds: ceramic, polyethylene, polystyrene, polyester, mica and silver-mica, NP0 and COG, tantalum, and electrolytics with voltage ratings into the 1000s of VDC.
  • Their stock of resistors is smaller at “only” forty feet, but it includes all the types there are, including SMD. By the way, you can get a whole reel of SMDs for less than five bucks if you’re willing to sort through the somewhat-disorganized shelves of them.
  • Almost twenty feet of customer-accessible semiconductors and ICs sorted by type in bin boxes. If you can’t find what you need there, just ask at the counter. They’ve got what could be as much as a hundred feet of sorted ICs and other devices that they’ll dive into and most likely come back with what you asked for. You also need to ask for the new NTE devices they stock.
  • Last but not least, Surplus Gizmos has about a hundred linear feet of used test instruments and other such gear. Most have been tested and tagged with notes on their condition. At any given time, they’ve got five or six venerable and beloved Tektronix model 465 oscilloscopes. I think one of the Gizmos staff is an old Tek tech because these have been gone over, well tested, and repaired if needed. Again, there’s always notes on the condition attached, and they seem to have a standard price of $150 for a fully-functional unit.

That should give you an idea of just how useful Surplus Gizmos is to the electronics enthusiast or radio amateur. One of the things this means is that they know the value of their merchandise and it’s mostly priced accordingly. This is a surplus store, not a flea market. It’s mostly a place to go to get items you can’t get elsewhere, or that you need (or want) faster than it can be shipped to you. Frankly, it’s also a place to patronize frequently so that it remains profitable enough to stay in business. Here in northwest Oregon and southwest Washington, we’re pretty fortunate to have a source like Surplus Gizmos. The Silicon Forest isn’t exactly Heaven for DIY electronics and radio, but it’s a long way from Hell.

 

Postscript: I guess I should have acknowledged that there’s a Ham Radio Outlet “appliance” store in Tigard, on the south-central side of the Portland metro area. For me, their raison d’etre is that they have RF coax and antenna wire that you can’t count on Gizmos having. A few times a year, I get a bug up my cathode (conventional current) and I pay HRO a visit. I buy a CQ Magazine or two, and maybe some coax if I need it. I mean no offense, but I just don’t like factory-made, store-bought Ham gear. It’s not fun for me–unless it’s more than fifty-years old and features vacuum tubes.

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