Thursday, November 29, 2012

Mind the Culture

It's not often a Banner lecture gives me recent cultural history and memories of an old boyfriend.

And yet, today's did.

Alan Wurtzel was speaking on "Good to Great to Gone: Circuit City," talking about the chain his father started in 1949 that was history by 2009.

I go to lots of lectures at the Virginia Historical Society, but they don't often cover events that took place in my lifetime (well, part of it).

So, right off, I was curious to hear this slice of late 20th century cultural history.

Plus, back in college, I'd had a long-time boyfriend who worked at Circuit City and had always praised the company for its people-friendly philosophy.

Wurtzel told the story of his father visiting Richmond and while at a barber shop at the corner of Park and Robinson (Robin Inn's corner, perhaps?), hearing that the south's first television station had just begun.

And while TV viewing in those days was pretty much "a 13 inch black and white screen with half picture and half snow," according to Wurtzel, his Dad saw the future.

Let's not forget that in 1949, "home entertainment" consisted of radios. Period.

Two weeks later, he moved to Richmond with his family, lock, stock and barrel and proceeded to use $13,000 to open Ward's TV at 705 West Broad Street, which eventually became Circuit City.

Most fascinating was how he sold TVs.

Seems he'd run ads in the RTD offering "free home demonstrations" and schedule them for every night at 6, 7, 8 and 9:00.

Interesting hours, right?

Nope, WTVR was only on the air from 6-10, so he knew what he was doing.

He'd bring a TV, explain it and leave it, returning the next night to either pick it up or (usually) have the proud new owners sign an installment agreement to buy their TV over time.

Eventually the store moved to 1806 W. Broad (across from the old Sears we're all hoping is about to become a Whole Foods) and added appliances to his inventory of TVs.

Wurtzel has done extensive research for his book, so his talk was populated by facts and company philosophies like "confront the brutal facts" and "curiosity sustains the cat" and "encourage debate."

As one who has confronted the brutal facts (I'm a little eccentric and I have too much energy), proved that curiosity can sustain an entire life (hence my presence at VHS today) and encouraged debate with everyone I know and love simply for the pleasure of the discussion, I'd say I could have been prime Circuit City material.

All except I never liked TV, haven't owned one in years and detest shopping.

Oh, and the relationship with the Circuit City boyfriend lost its allure when my curiosity kept growing and his fizzled out.

As I learned from Wurtzel today, that's a perfect metaphor for Circuit City.

But, man, did it leave some great cultural history behind.

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