Saturday, 19 March 2016

Saturday Morning On Radio Row

New York City
Most likely, every large city had their own version of 'Radio Row', back in the 30's or later and for many radio fans, a Saturday morning visit was the highlight of the week.

As a young shortwave-crazed kid in the 50's, there was nothing that I looked forward to more than the weekend and being able to stay up as late as I wanted, tuning the bands on my big old GE cathedral ... high up in my third-floor attic bedroom shack. But number two on the list was my weekly Saturday morning trip, by bus, to Vancouver's north Granville Street and then on to the library. There I could read the latest radio magazines as well as look at their huge archived collection of earlier issues.

In the 50's, there was a three block strip of radio shops on the north end of Granville street, just after the bridge into downtown Vancouver.

Granville Street
I imagine that it was similar to many other 'Radio Rows' ... kind of a mix between old and new and a little on the seedy side. It was a six or seven block walk from the bus stop to the radio stores and then another dozen back again to the library. The winters in Vancouver were always wet and dreary and I'd invariably get drenched in the process (I learned very early, that for some odd reason, Vancouverites never carried umbrellas!), but hey ... I was crazy about radio and what was a little rain.

During this same time span, once or twice per year, the family would pile into Dad's old Chevrolet and we would make a road-trip to Seattle. Unlike the present, our Canadian dollar was worth more than the American dollar back then, so there were always some great shopping bargains to be found. I recall there being a number of old radio shops as well as several surplus stores just south of Pike Street, on 1st Avenue as well as a few more, one or two blocks down the hill toward the docks. Maybe these were the last vestiges of Seattle's version of 'Radio Row'.

Of course nothing compares with the original 'Radio Row', located in the lower Manhattan district of New York City. It was born along with radio itself and by the early 30's the Cortlandt Street neighbourhood was blanketed with shops selling radios to consumers and components to builders. A Saturday morning trip to the Cortlandt Street paradise was a ritual for hundreds of radio fanatics for more than four decades, as seen in this timely old film taken one typical (Saturday?) morning on New York's 'Radio Row' ... what an amazing time it must have been!

From "The Death of New York's Radio Row", by Syd Steinhardt :

"Radio Row's popularity peaked in the 1950s. Its proximity to the New Jersey ferry docks and the financial district, combined with the advent of new consumer electronics goods and postwar demand, attracted floods of shoppers to the area every day except Sunday. To service their customers, stores opened at 7:00 a.m. on weekdays and closed late on Saturdays.

Radio Row was not a neat and pretty sight. Block upon block over 300 street level stores, with over three times as many enterprises in the floors above them were jammed into 20 to 25-foot storefronts, up and down streets such as Albany, Carlisle, Greenwich and Liberty. Their shelves and floor spaces were packed with vacuum tubes, condensers, transistors and other high-tech bric-a-brac for ham radio enthusiasts and do-it-yourselfers. It was, as the New York Times called it in 1950, "a paradise for electronic tinkerers." "

By the mid sixties, only a few radio shops remained and after some very bitter court battles, the remaining merchants were 'bought out' and the Cortlandt Street area was cleared so that construction could begin on the World Trade Center's twin towers. Today, the area is now home to One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the U.S.A. and to the 9/11 Memorial ... now all sacred ground.

courtesy: New York Port Authority

I was in New York City, three years after 9/11 and recall looking with much sadness into the multi-block deep hole in the ground ... how much happier it must have been there, back on those wonderful Saturday mornings, on 'Radio Row'.


John said...

Radio row for me in the 1950's was as you mentioned the
Granville street area. The Ham Shack, I think it was called,
got my first hand key there before I even learned the radio morse code.

I used to browse through second hand shops on Main street
also and found the odd radio goodie there. Like my first
set of real headphones "Brandies Superior" 2000 ohm for
twenty five cents, and my first vibroplex blue racer
speed key for four dollars.

Steve McDonald said...

Yes ... I remember 'The Ham Shack' was the last one right at the end of Granville before the bridge...very seedy but always interesting.

Unknown said...

Do you have any photos of the Ham Shack? I'd love to have a copy. I used to go there in the early 1960s. The old guy who ran the place was gruff but he had a soft spot for stupid kids like me. All I remember of the place is that the shelves were stuffed with equipment that was stacked so high that it eventually disappeared into darkness. Behind the counter the wall was crowded with little boxes of goodies like transistors and tubes. Outside on the street the neighboring shops were "ladies and escorts" pubs, and the denizens were homeless drunks and even scarier types, but I loved that block of Granville Street. There was a used paperback bookshop with zillions of ACE double SF novels. It was my last stop (after visiting the library) before crossing the Granville bridge on my way home.

Steve McDonald said...

Hey Mark and thanks for your comments! We no doubt crossed-paths unknowingly back in the 60's perhaps. I don't have any photos of the Ham Shack but I think I have an ad in the old Canadian Amateur magazine with a picture of their front window...if I recall, it had one of those Trio (now Kenwood) S-38 look-alikes sitting front and center. It was a horribly seedy old place as were most of the guys that hung there. The owner was Reg. My last stop on the way back up Granville to the library was Ted Fraser's Book Bin where I would grab a few CQs or old Hugo Gernsback magazines for 25 cents each. There always seemed to be a fresh supply of second-hand radio mags there. Saturday mornings were the best :-)))