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Keeping Dead Retail Chains Alive in the Virtual Mall of the Internet

There is a specter haunting the internet — the specter of RadioShack. Since April, shortly after the electronics store chain declared bankruptcy for the second time in as many years, the struggling brand has been represented in part by a “rogue” Facebook page labeled “RadioShack — Reynoldsburg, OH.” That location closed in March, but it looks like one employee working there had some unfinished business with the clientele.

Though the page’s profanities went viral — and RadioShack disavowed the account as “unofficial” — we never got a definitive answer about the person behind it. Whoever they are, they’ve kept up a steady stream of mockery and abuse, which would seem to point toward a standard troll. “Bring your mother in today so we can tell her to fuck off!” they wrote on Mother’s Day; a few weeks later, they advertised a Fourth of July “flash sale” — “You can fuck off 4 times for the price of one!” Yet mixed in with these one-liners are posts that suggest the author had actually held a shitty retail job with the company.

That we can’t tell a deliberate goof from a legitimate grievance says a lot about our nostalgia for a bygone age of retail — the disgruntled or oddball clerks we sought help from before Amazon and Google took over — and the liminal space those dead franchises now occupy. A similar phenomenon attended the success of @loneblockbuster, a Twitter account styled as the voice of the “last” Blockbuster Video store in operation. In reality, a handful of Blockbusters remain open, none of them at the Oak Lawn Shopping Center of Oak Lawn, Illinois. No matter: The parody serves as a perfect homage, indistinguishable from how we remember the real thing.

What a delight, too, when we see these brick-and-mortar chains, doomed along with the American mall by a cataclysm known as the “retail apocalypse,” resurrected in the web media that foretold their extinction. RadioShack was never meant to have a Facebook presence, nor Blockbuster a Twitter account. The incongruity is like Edison using a cell phone, the past reaching out to take ghostly hold of the future. These jokes are less eulogy than mythmaking, and they carve out virtual real estate for the names that once dotted our suburbanscapes.

As Proust taught us, memory is a sensory mechanism. We recall the inimitable candy-and-carpet aroma of Blockbuster, the gleaming rows of shrinkwrapped CDs at Tower and Virgin and Sam Goody, the buzzing fluorescent lights in Caldor or the pleasing hush of a Borders Books. We think back on the polo-shirted teens who braved acne outbreaks to make a few bucks as theoretical experts on the different kinds of soccer balls sold at Sports Authority. These inputs linger, tactile and vivid. What will we remember of ordering a new laptop from Apple.com — or even buying it in their sterile glass store, which mimics the frictionless online experience — the way we remember trying out desktop PCs in the CompUSA showroom?

Funny how capitalism’s focus on improvement makes us fond of the old imperfections. What I wouldn’t give to pick a movie off a staff recommendations shelf instead of according to some heartless algorithm. Or to unearth a lost gem because the film I wanted wasn’t available — to browse real shelves, not a site index, guided by my eyes and hands instead of keywords. This shopping was never an organic art, but it gave us movement, perhaps even agency. The chain stores merged with each other as they bulldozed mom-and-pop precursors, finally establishing a monoculture that, while limiting choice, allowed a common understanding of what America held dear. Would the nation be this polarized if we all still had to go to RadioShack and tell the surly cashier our zip code to buy batteries? If only we could reset our digital alarm clocks and find out.