February 26, 2021

Requiem for Fry's, The Quirkiest Electronics Stores There Ever Were

Last updated 3/13/21 3:14 PM PT—architect info added

I can't remember the first time I drove past Fry's Electronics in Burbank, California—whether it was on an early business trip to LA or after I'd officially moved here in 2011—but it felt like it had always been there. 

And as much of an oddity it was, with a flying saucer having crash-landed into its front entrance, it never occurred to me that it wouldn't always be there. 

But this week, I found myself back at Fry's Burbank to pay my last respects, after the Fry's chain announced it would be ceasing operations and closing all its retail stores. 

The consumer electronics chain's mascot, Charlie Chip (modeled after a computer chip but looking a bit like Spongebob Squarepants), was there to point the way...

...and the retro-futuristic pylon still bore the Fry's name...
...but the grates were down behind the glass doors at the front entrance, which bore signs declaring that the location was permanently closed. 

Same story at the Woodland Hills location in the San Fernando Valley...

...except there, I could press my nose on the glass and see a sliver of the "Alice in Wonderland" theme that still adorned the inside. 

circa 2019 (Google Street View)

It was particularly heartbreaking because the closure had been announced just the day before—with no notice to allow for a little "farewell tour" of the remaining themed locations (like the steampunk/industrial revolution one in City of Industry, or the ancient Rome-themed one in Fountain Valley). 

Fortunately, a couple of friends had recently visited the tiki-themed Fry's in Manhattan Beach—and told me to get a move on if I wanted to see it myself, because it looked like it might be closing soon. 

For the longest time, I thought that the Burbank Fry's was the only Fry's—or, at least, the only Fry's worth visiting. 

But since the Fry brothers (John, Randy, and David) opened their first location in Sunnyvale, California in 1985, they'd found a way to make shopping for computers and stereo equipment a themed experience at nearly all of their stores. 

And the theme was different at each one—with outposts expanding beyond California and into Arizona, Nevada (with a slot machine fa├žade in Vegas), Texas, and five other states. 

At the tiki one (technically "Tahiti"-themed), the first thing you'd see was a koi pond made out of "volcanic" rock. 

Then there were the Moai standing guard outside the stereo showroom...

...and alongside the shelves of gaming servers. 

I got the distinct feeling that the store was a mere shell of what it once was—and that was probably true of its other locations, too. 

To its credit, it outlasted superstore chains like Circuit City and CompUSA and specialty retailers like Radio Shack. And, at least in Manhattan Beach, its shelves were pretty full, thanks to a consignment model it had adopted. 

I really wanted to buy something at Fry's Manhattan Beach when I was there just over a month ago—but to be honest, there was nothing for me there, despite the store having diversified its stock beyond electronics and into more "general store"-type wares.      

It's no surprise that it could no longer compete with online retailers.

But there was something so charming about going to a Fry's—something that made it feel like an event.

It's a shame that those store designs will disappear. They felt like such a slice of Americana—roadside attractions that were larger than life approximations of elsewhere in the world. 

Or, in the case of Burbank, a representation of something that was out of this world.

Will the buildings be razed? Let's hope Burbank's circa 1962 Googie gem by architect Maxwell Starkman (of Sony Pictures Plaza fame) will be spared.

Aren't any of the entrances designed by Eric Christensen (whose resume includes work with George Lucas) somehow worth saving?

What happens to the decor? (It looks like some of it will be kept, while some of it will be auctioned off.)

Then again, like any Hollywood movie set, maybe it was never really meant to be permanent. 

Still, couldn't Fry's leave some of it in situ for somebody else to come in and repurpose it? (Like for a nightclub or an indoor mini golf course?)

I want to keep California quirky for as long as possible. 

It's getting harder.

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