When Chuck Schuetz started his own business reselling corporations’ unwanted electronics in 1986 he had no idea that his Sunnyvale shop, the WeirdStuff Warehouse, would become a destination not just for tinkerers, but for visitors searching for the “real” Silicon Valley. A former engineer at floppy disk drive maker Shugart Associates, Schuetz recognized a business opportunity unfolding in front of him in the early 1980s. All of the tech companies, his included, were throwing away perfectly usable pieces of equipment. He, his brother Jim and his colleague Dave McDougall knew people who were looking for cheap computer parts and, as engineers they could acquire those parts and dispose of them correctly. WeirdStuff was born.
Fast forward 30 years and, despite the decline of Radio Shack and the rise of Amazon, the business is still going strong, thanks to its location surrounded by technology buffs who buy and tourists who browse. Located in a 27,000 square foot warehouse containing everything from electronic typewriters to heat exchangers to motherboards, WeirdStuff has a unique collection showcasing the history of technology (and unlike museums, admission is free). The warehouse is stacked with desktops, operating system CDs, modems, cables, disk drives, printers, Blackberries and server racks. Prices range from $2 audio cables and $5 VOIP phones to $200 or more for laptops.
Just like Silicon Valley itself, the warehouse is stocked with contradictions. Despite its size, it can feel crowded with merchandise haphazardly stacked to near the ceiling. And despite its technology, it can feel like a major throwback: a dim neon “WeirdStuff” sign flickering on and off, aisles empty of people but overflowing with obsolete or outdated gadgets. Boxes of entangled cables, books about Windows 2000 and 2003 servers, keyboards and CPUs, had a thin layer of dust covering them, indicating a long and fruitless stay. On my recent visit there were only a handful of customers rummaging, which seemed a shame, but WeirdStuff sells online and Schuetz says that busloads of tourists sometimes pull up.
To Schuetz, the reason is straightforward: where else can you “see” Silicon Valley? Tourists looking for a photo opp in the world’s tech mecca are surprised to find a collection of low-slung suburbs and innocuous black-glass office parks. They can snap a selfie in front of Facebook’s Like sign (while enjoying the exhaust from the highway just steps away) and tour a small museum at Intel headquarters. But they crave a less symbolic and more satisfying experience, a place where they can actually touch the Valley’s historical output.
“Everyone around the world knows Silicon Valley and when they come here, they want to see something unique that they don’t have where they are from,” says Schuetz thoughtfully. “WeirdStuff is unique. It’s a place that probably wouldn’t survive out of this area because it requires a source of material and a concentration of techies to buy it.”
But WeirdStuff isn’t a museum, it’s very much alive and though Schuetz betrayed some concern for a future in which more and more is purchase online, he says the bulk of the store’s visitors come are “techies, do-it-yourself people, collectors and parents with kids” looking for cheap parts. E-commerce has been a mixed blessing, siphoning off customers but making prices easier to find and heightening the value of a trusted source for more expensive items (an ultrasonic welder press?).
High school robotics teams come in looking for cheap parts and elementary school teachers bring in classes to teach them about recycling. Schuetz loves having kids in the shop.
“Kids will come in here and say, ‘Look at that! What’s that?’ And it’s a typewriter,” Schuetz says with a laugh. “We see a lot of kids come through our store and laugh at some of the older items because they can’t believe they existed or were useful compared to what they have today. But they did exist and it’s great to see them thinking about this and wondering how everything worked.”
Schuetz believes in remembering the past and the physical reminders that whatever we build has to go somewhere, whether into a landfill or a kid’s robot. He hopes that message is reaching tomorrow’s inventors.
“If you have to worry about the end of life of electronics, you’re more careful about developing products,” says Schuetz. “It broadens your ideas about designing things.”
Visit: WeirdStuff.com // 384 Caribbean Drive, Sunnyvale // Hours: Mon.-Sat. 9:30 a.m. — 6 p.m, Sun. 11 a.m. — 5 p.m. // (408) 743–5650