electronic parts

Dear Lazyweb, is there a real electronic parts store (microswitches, servos, that kind of thing: i.e., "not Radio Shack") somewhere actually in San Francisco? Or are all such stores down on the peninsula?
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74 Responses:

  1. violentbloom says:

    central computer on er howard? at 4th near the metreon might have some stuff...or be able to order it.

  2. korgmeister says:

    Man, I'm lucky to find something like that in my state. Let alone a city of less than 1 million people.

    • suppressingfire says:

      Makes me all the more happy Unicorn Electronics exists where I live -- there are only about 200,000 living in Broome County. Of course, being the birth place of IBM left a lot of aging electronics geeks around to prop it up...

      • korgmeister says:

        Yeah, I live in a city that makes lots of cars. So if I were a car geek, I'd be right sorted. You can't frickin' turn around without an auto parts shop hereabouts.

    • hattifattener says:

      Yeah. There are a few good parts-and-surplus stores left up here in the Seattle area, but they're a dying breed. Between giant mailorder houses like DigiKey and Mouser, and the gradual disappearance of actual engineering and R&D jobs from Seattle, I think they don't get as much custom as they used to.

      Which is a pity. The catalogs are great, but browsing a physical store's shelves is a whole nother kind of joy.

      • korgmeister says:

        Yeah, in Australia, mail order is really your only feasible option for getting a hold of electronics parts. Dick Smith Electronics used to be the place for electronic hobbyists, but they've shifted their focus to consumer electronics. Jaycar has an OK selection, but once you start getting into anything really serious then they're no good.

        So basically it's Soanar, RS Australia and Dontronics for that sort of thing. And I don't think any of them run a physical shopfront, it's all online (and indeed most of them don't even bother with pictures for alot of their products).

        Of course, if any Australian electronics nerds know anywhere else you can get cheap electronic parts, I'm all ears.

  3. kfringe says:

    The good news is that all such stores are not down the peninsula. The bad news is that the others seem to be on the wrong side of the bay.

    I don't think you'll be doing this shopping on your bicycle.

  4. mattbot says:

    Nothing in San Francisco that I know of unless it's opened in the last year. The closest store I know of is in Berkeley; Al Lasher's Electronics on University, which is where I usually go for components but it's fairly small. Not sure what their selection of motors is like. Jameco in the South Bay has a will call service so you can call ahead and pick up stuff for more exotic things. Halted in San Jose has lots of used stuff which rotates through somewhat randomly and is generally worth the trip down there every few months. Triangle surplus, also in San Jose, is good for heavy motors, pneumatics, stepper controllers, giant lasers, etc. Unless shopping for emergency supplies, better (cheaper) to online order through DigiKey, Jameco or Mouser. The Rat Shack near 22nd and Mission had the largest components section last I checked if you get really desperate for something common.

    • wikkit42 says:

      And McMaster. They don't have much for semiconductors, but for industrial stuff they have good service and good prices.

      • skreidle says:

        Interestingly, Amazon.com has started carrying a wide line of industrial and scientific supplies. I think that section may still be in beta, but it's there and reasonably comprehensive. (McMaster has an excellent website, too, when it comes to finding exactly the industrial parts you need.)

    • jef_poskanzer says:

      There's also Electronics Plus on 4th in San Rafael.

    • latemodel says:

      I 4th this or whatever.

      One of the first things I learned as an engineering intern was this: unless you absolutely must have something within a few hours, order online. Digikey and McMaster both ship same-day, so you can have things within 18-24 hours.

      I think that's the big thing I didn't take into account. I'm used to ordering stuff online, but I expect things to take a few days to leave the warehouse. Ginormous industrial-supply houses work a lot faster. DigiKey guarantees same-day shipment on overnight packages if you place the order by 8pm Central time. McMaster has warehouses in every timezone, so UPS ground shipments often arrive the next day. In Boston it was about 90% (warehouse in Jersey), in SF it's about 50% (warehouse in LA).

      And you're just not going to beat those guys for selection. My favories are McMaster-Carr and Digi-Key. Mouser is a decent second choice for electronic components, though generally I only end up there for discontinued parts. Grainger has a will-call service and shops in most cities, so if you need a common part you can get it same day. MSC Industrial Supplies and Grainger both will occasionally have shop supplies that McMaster doesn't (drill bits, obscure janitorial tools) or a better range thereof. And if you're feeling really spendy, go to . They have some really cool stuff (e.g. watch jewels) that the big distributors don't carry, but whatever you buy is guaranteed to be marked up about 50%.

      • latemodel says:

        Sorry about the crap html at the end there... I meant Small Parts Inc.

      • mattbot says:

        Grainger is fine for ordering big things like power tools and heavier equipment but they have consistently screw up my orders of smaller parts. They seem to have an attitude that any item under half a pound couldn't possibly be important. Unless your electronics project is installing an HVAC system, avoid.

      • jwz says:

        Cool, thanks... I didn't know about most of those places.

        Normally I'd just buy stuff online, but in this case I kinda wanted to pick things up and fiddle with them to figure out what exactly I want, which is why I was hoping for somewhere local.

    • jwz says:

      For the record, that Radio Shack is worthless; it has only the same two Snap-On racks of pushbuttons and fuses as every other Radio Shack in the western hemisphere.

      • mattbot says:

        That's too bad. In the glory days I seem to remember three racks, a half open blister pack of oversized potentiometers and a dog eared Forrest Mims book.

  5. inhumandecency says:

    Has anyone stopped to question what those servos are going into, and whether we should really be helping jwz with this?

    All I'm saying is, if his next post asks whether there's a place in San Francisco that sells military-grade lasers, I'm heading for this hills.

  6. skreidle says:

    I'm thinking you need to make the drive and go to Fry's. :)

    • jwz says:

      Fuck that place. I don't shop at places that treat customers like criminals. Every time I've been there, it's ended with me daring them to call the police because I won't let them look in my bag.

      • skreidle says:


        You enter their property, you consent to reasonable search if you're leaving with a bag; some stores don't even let you bring your own bags in. Costco, BJ's, and Price Club won't let you out the door with a cart full of goods without comparing it to your receipt, either; Best Buy is occasionally inclined to do the same. Proactive theft prevention allows many fewer thefts; trusting all of your customers is a great way to increase loss.

        And yet, the warehouse stores I mentioned, and Fry's, have a better selection and better prices than most stores--in no small part due to loss prevention, I'd imagine. Privacy vs. low prices--a trade-off one must choose at such stores, I suppose.

        (Mind you, I'm generally a gunh-ho privacy and civil rights advocate--but in this case, you're on their property, buying (and hopefully not stealing) things from them, and until you leave their property, you play by their rules, or shop elsewhere. Personally, I'd play by their rules, and probably stick a copy of the Communist Manifesto and some anti-Bush lit in my bag for grins.)

        • holyfilament says:

          Once you pay for something it's YOUR property and they don't have any right to search it.

          JWZ is right Fry's can lick the velvet pouch.

          • skreidle says:

            Are they talking your bag, or the plastic bag from the cashier, incidentally?

            How would you suggest they prevent shoplifting, then? Sensor tags on every single sub-item of every item in the store? Every item behind locked glass doors? Guards at each end of every aisle? Personal watchmen? Or, perhaps, a quick peek into Joe Average's bag to make sure that Joe hasn't slipped a USB drive or DVD in there?

            • solarbird says:

              Are they talking your bag, or the plastic bag from the cashier, incidentally?
              The plastic bag from the cashier.

            • bodyfour says:

              > the plastic bag from the cashier

              The plastic bag from the cashier, which quite clearly is now my personal property after we concluded our transaction.

              > How would you suggest they prevent shoplifting, then?

              If I had shoplifted an item it would probably be in my pocket, not in the plastic bag that they just gave me 15 seconds ago.

              • skreidle says:

                Point. Odd, indeed. Have they/corporate ever been questioned about it?

                • bodyfour says:

                  Corporate knows the law. They also know that most people will comply with the check (whether because they have to or just to be polite) which is enough for them.

                  If the guy at the door has been trained properly they won't push the issue... they might yell at you but they won't detain you. They know not to risk a false imprisonment charge.

                  The other thing to remember is be sure not to touch the employee — if they're really aggressive they might get in your face and try to provoke you into responding. If you so much as lay a finger on them they will call it assault and have you arrested.

            • wfaulk says:

              What exactly do you think they're going to find in a bag, though? The shoplifter has successfully smuggled his item past the cashier, so then he decides to remove it from his pants and put it in the bag in the ten feet between the register and the door?

              Not to mention the fact that this all implies that he's purchased something legitimately while shoplifting something else. It would be a lot safer to just shoplift the thing that you wanted and not purchase anything else. No door guard is going to look down your pants.

              I suppose it's possible that he brought in his own bag and stuffed something in there, but it's pretty easy to spot that without harassing legitimate customers. If someone leaves the store with a bag but didn't come through the register area, then that seems like a reasonable reason to suspect someone. Then just prevent people from going through the checkout area who isn't buying something. All of this implies unfettered exits and a single line to the registers, which all works to the benefit of the legitimate customer anyway.

              I could draw some parallels between this and the TSA, but at least the TSA provides the illusion of something positive.

              • mister_borogove says:

                As evil_1_2 points out below, the threat model here is that the shopper and the cashier are in collusion, and the cashier charged the shopper for the $10 maglight but not the $400 video card in the bag.

                I doubt this will help jwz's perspective at all, but you can read this as Fry's treating its employees like criminals, not its customers.

                Still plenty of reasons to avoid Fry's, not the least of which is the ability to order crap online from the safety of your home, without having to go out into the cold hard world with its man-eating predators.

                • bodyfour says:

                  > the threat model here is that the shopper and the cashier are in collusion

                  Yes, or the cashier just being careless.

                  The point I was trying to make (and I assume wfaulk was as well) is that skreidle's argument of "well, if they didn't have this magic check they'd have to resort to other methods of preventing shoplifting" is idiocy. The bag-check doesn't have any effect on the lone shoplifer. And Fry's (like any large retailer) does take lots of other steps to limit losses to shoplifting.

                  For the record, I'm actually not really bothered by the bag check myself as long as it's quick. I just think it's extremely important to know your rights. It's astounding to me that otherwise educated people would believe (and even cheerfully accept!) that they're legally obligated to have their personal effects searched while they're in a public place.

                  As far as I'm concerned you should feel free to comply with a bag check as long as you understand that you're just doing the retailer a favor. Don't do it because you think you have to.

                  • skreidle says:

                    As I now understand when and how the check is performed, I agree that it's pointless from the consumer standpoint (except in the relatively rare case of consumer/cashier collusion, or the somewhat more common cashier error.)

            • rodgerd says:

              How would you suggest they prevent shoplifting, then?

              Guess what? That's not my problem. My problem is finding somewhere to spend my money that doesn't treat me like a fucking criminal. Which is fortunately relatively easy to do in NZ.

          • bdu says:

            I don't know what fry's JWZ has been going to, but I just walk right by the security checkers at the exits, they don't try to stop me. In general, it appears that the security check at the exit is voluntary, yet most people do it without thinking.

            • ioerror says:

              Under California law you're not required to comply with their bullshit bag search requests. Unless you're directly suspected of a crime, they don't even have the right to request it in any meaningful manner. Furthermore, I think you can sue them if they try to detain you when you tell them to go fuck themselves.

        • greatevil says:

          The truth is most shrink is from employees, the bag and receipt checking is mostly to catch them not random shoplifters.

        • bodyfour says:

          > Costco, BJ's, and Price Club won't let you out the door with a cart full of goods without comparing it to your receipt, either;

          Those are a different case since they're "clubs". You consented to being search in the fine print of the contract you signed when you purchased your membership.

          General retailers like Fry's do not have the right to search your belongings simply because you're standing in a public place. There is a common law concept called Shopkeeper's privilege which gives them some right to search and temporarily people on their property but only if they have a reasonable suspicion that you're shoplifting. Searching everybody exiting far exceeds that right.

        • radven says:

          Once you have paid for your merchandise and passed through the checkout, they have no grounds to search you unless they have a reason to suspect you of theft.

          Your bag at that point is your property.

          The checking of receipts at the door done by many stores is actually in truth voluntary, though they hate it when people seem to realize this.

          If you refuse, they can't stop you.

          I have a friend who makes a habit of doing this at Costco....

          I personally prefer not to make a fuss - it just isn't worth it to piss off some minimum wage drone.

          - chris (www.radven.net)

          • skreidle says:

            As bodyfour mentioned, you may be contractually bound by Costco to submit to a receipt/cart comparison prior to departure, not sure on that one.

            • trauma_hound says:

              You would be wrong, you can't sign your rights away. In any case you've already paid for the items and they can't stop you. If they do physically detain you, that's a felony in most states.

              • skreidle says:

                Except that your right to be in the store, and to buy their products, hinges on your continuing paid membership. They could certainly cancel your membership and prevent you from ever reacquiring a renewal, which is a risky gamble at the door.

                • trauma_hound says:

                  Sure they could do that. But then I could get a restraining order preventing them from showing up at my work to push their memberships after my experience with them yesterday. They BTW completely backed off after I threatened to call the police. They actually followed me out to my car and were at one point blocking me from leaving.

                  • skreidle says:

                    And you expended all this energy for what? To avoid a minor inconvenience, purportedly on principle?

                  • trauma_hound says:

                    30 mins in line, a huge back up at the door, I'm tired of it, I'm still recovering from knee surgery and was in pain. So it wasn't MINOR, to you maybe.

                  • skreidle says:

                    I actually asked Costco what their official policy was; this was their reply:

                    Thank you for your email to Costco Wholesale.

                    It is our policy, as a membership based warehouse club, that all receipts are verified for accuracy at the exit door. There are no exceptions made to this policy and those who choose not to abide by the rules we have set for those who enter our buildings may have their membership revoked. I have included a link to our membership information brochure that states the rules and policies regarding Costco membership.


        • jwz says:

          They have no right to search my property unless they are prepared to make a citizen's arrest, detain me, and then have me sue them. (And once the cashier hands me the little white bag, it's my property.) But even if they did: fuck those guys. Their evidenceless assumption that I'm a thief is rude, and on that basis alone, they aren't getting my money.

          • skreidle says:

            Unless, as bodyfour pointed out, it's to catch cashier-based loss, at the inconvenience of the customer. Different motivation, same effect.

        • baconmonkey says:

          They have the right to not allow you on the property. That's it.
          The only other option is citizen's arrest. But they had better have good cause to believe that you actually broke the law, otherwise they face false imprisonment charges.

          They can ASK to see in your bag, and you can volunteer to show them the bag. They can also stipulate that you are not allowed on the property with a bag. but when you refuse to consent to routine search, their options are to do nothing, or demand that you leave the property. If they ask you to leave and you don't, you face tresspassing charges.

          • skreidle says:

            Good to know! :)

          • gpeters says:

            Err, what about shopkeeper's privilege? Detention and search of a suspected shoplifter need not be an arrest, and there is no tort.

            The basic point that you need to be suspected is true, but geez, enough with the sea-lawyering.

            - Gavin

        • hattifattener says:

          Actually, no. If they think I've stolen something they can damn well call the cops in. If not, they're not searching me.

          But the real reason I don't go to Fry's is that their selection is crap, or at least it has seemed so the couple of times I've gone.

      • robotdevil says:

        Frys sucks. In Washington, their electronivs shelves have begun to dwindle, and rather than restocking parts that are in demand, said parts are replaced with flashlights. The aisles are now liberally sprinkled with flashlights. sigh.

      • cavorite says:

        I'm lucky in that in texas, they can't legally stop me in the store. They can ask, but i can keep on going, if they try to detain me I step around them, if they touch me then they go to jail for assault. Fuck Fry's though, it's my last resort kinda place here. We're lucky to have a few vendors of components in town for electronics projects, but it seems more amd more likely that the web is the best resource for such things.

      • starjewel says:

        They can't legally touch you. It's not like Costco where you sign a membership contract. I always refuse to let Fry's check my bag, after the one time they accused me of stealing because the inept cashier couldn't count how many ethernet cables I purchased.

      • kfringe says:

        That happened to me on only two of the occasions on which I went there, partly because they almost never had what I wanted in stock and partly because the minimum wage highlighter patrol was bright enough to understand the words "no thanks" to mean "get the hell out of the way."

        I believe my only real problem with them coincided with my last visit. Funny how that works.

    • arch_nme says:


    • mister_borogove says:

      Way more annoying than the bag search is the fact that when you return a component that doesn't work, they put the box right back on the shelf, on the assumption that the problem was pilot error.

      • skreidle says:

        That's just fantastic!

      • pseudomonas says:

        It needs people returning things to shove a little note inside the box to that effect.

        • dzm6 says:

          The boxes are labeled that they're returned items, are being sold at a lower cost, and still carry the full manufacturer's warranty.

          • pseudomonas says:

            Ah, well, that's less bad. I agree it doesn't show much respect for the judgement of the original returner.

    • moof says:

      pfft; if he were to drive down the peninsula, Halted is the place to go.

  7. inoci says:

    i know it isn't a local store, but the mouser catalog has always been kind to me for this kind of thing. if nothing else, you can use the massive thing as a desk.

  8. allartburns says:

    I don't know of any place that isn't in SF.

    As far as the checking the plastic bags on the way out, I just walk right by those guys. Not once has someone followed me past the front door of the building.

    • sc00ter says:

      I was at a Wal-Mart once and walking out the exit and the teenager in front of me set off the alarm..

      The 65yo lady that was working at the exit said "hey!" and the kid bolted.

      Nobody did anything after that.

      • skreidle says:

        I'm reminded of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the good guy runs (and runs and runs and runs) across the field, stabs one guard, runs in, and the other guard's only response is "...heeey."

    • jwz says:

      I've found that to be the case at ChumpUSA, but on multiple occasions, I've had the Fry's people follow me all the way to my car making threats. This was years ago, of course, since I stopped going there.

  9. sjn says:

    While building various devices, I had to pretty much give up on any stores locally. I had to rely on a variety of web sites, and hope like hell, the description was actually what i wanted. I have returned way more stuff than I should have.

    All the places that used to be easy and fun to browse seem to have disappeared.

    I will second Triangle in San Jose, worth the drive, but don't bother if yuo are looking for something specific.

    For what it is worth, the best luck i had with ordering fiddley electronic bits was from Jameco. If I recall, after my first order online, they sent me a phone book sized catalog that does wonders as a door stop. Or possibly home defense in a pinch.

  10. bifrosty2k says:

    I believe technically that Greybar has some of this stuff, but other than than mattbott has a pretty good list...
    I say technically because they have catalogs with this stuff, and sometimes carry it, but you have to talk to a wonk at the counter, and its always expensive.

  11. inoci says:

    hobby stores that sell radio controlled planes/cars/boats and model railroads tend to have the occasional replacement parts that might be what you are looking for. lots of tiny motors and actuators for different control types.

  12. kraquehaus says:

    I thought that cars on the street were the SF version of electronic parts stores. They can, apprently, also second as a temporary hotel, public restroom, and glass breaking practice range.

  13. strspn says:

    Servos are often tightly-coupled to their controllers by voltage, timing, waveshape, etc., which is another reason, besides the retail shop cost premium, to mail order matched pairs instead of trying to make some servo wor with another controller.

    Trying to make a good controller from incomplete servo specs is a trial-and-error process not unlike kernel recompilation.