Chicago's Radio Row
BY DON WATSON
Since Chicago has been very much in the national consciousness in the past month, the following article seems timely in its reminder of the windy city's part in the history of radio. (Editor)
The article in the October 2008 issue of A.R.C. about the Cortlandt St. Radio Row in New York brought back fond memories of Radio Row in Chicago. This was a scaled down version where you could go to acquire the parts for your next radio project.
This area was the 23-2500 block of south Michigan Ave. which featured mostly World War II surplus electronics. The stores, as best I can remember, were BC Electronics, R&W, Arrow Sales, Majestic, and Gemco.
I received my Amateur radio license in 1961 at the age of 16 while in my third year of high school. In those days your parents did not buy you radios from the Allied Radio catalog, and about all you received was encouragement -- nothing more. Few high school students had the resources to buy commercial equipment, so we had to explore alternative means. That's where Radio Row came into play. I was working after school and on weekends as a janitor for a printer and at a local hardware store. Prior to that, I had a paper route. All the kids in the neighborhood held jobs of some sort.
On Saturday mornings, my friends and I would take the train to downtown Chicago to shop for radio parts and equipment. The first stop was BC Electronics, a dimly lit junk shop featuring mostly surplus. Should you happen to find anything of value, it was time to drive a bargain with the proprietor Ben Cohn. Seldom could a deal be struck, and you would leave empty-handed. It was on to the next store.
Majestic Electronics did sell commercial entertainment radios, but was also more of a parts jobber and manufacturers' leftover inventory. Both Arrow and R&W sold military surplus and seemed to have a fresh inventory every month or so. We purchased a lot of radios at Arrow, and the proprietor was always very nice to us kids with little or no money. After a purchase, he would make sure we had enough money for carfare so we could get home, even giving us back some money.
Then there was Pearl Bodash of Gemco Electronics who would follow us around the store and holler at us to buy something. She was a rather full-figured woman and intimidating to teenagers when she would go into one of her tirades. However, she also would not take our last nickel.
Next, the fun part came trying to get all the treasures home on the train, since a lot of these radios were very large and heavy. I purchased a BC 348, and it got the seat next to me on the train ride home. We somehow made all these things work, such as using a BC 454 as a "Q5er" to sweeten up the receiver and using an ARC-5 as a VFO.
During the early 1960s, both Heathkit and Knightkit offered entry level Amateur radio products, but they were still out of reach for most of us. Allied Radio and Newark Electronics had separate departments called "The Hamshack," featuring used commercial equipment, but there again, still out of reach for most of us.
Like Cortlandt St., progress took over Radio Row in Chicago and changed the landscape to strip malls. After some 47 years in the hobby, I am still as enthusiastic as I was back then. The only difference is that now I can afford more expensive equipment.
A retired repair technician of computer-related equipment and a radio collector since the 1950s, Don Watson holds an Extra Class license. His hobby is restoring the electronics and cabinetry of vintage sets.