Palo Alto generally lays claim to the birthplace of Silicon Valley: the famous garage where Hewlett and Packard started their oscillator business. Having walked by that garage nearly every day for seven years, I have to say it certainly doesn’t stand out in this present day. Perhaps that’s because the center of the Valley has moved south to Sunnyvale. More specifically, to Lawrence Expressway.
When I moved to the Valley about 16 years ago, I knew the giants of National, Intel, and the like, but not the secret spots where “my kind” would gather away from the office. These had to be learned from the locals as there were no wiki sites to list them, or stone markers to show the way.
Fast forward to today, and one can find geek paradise all along Lawrence Distressway – enough to declare it the Geek Center of the Universe.
Hidden in the cloverleaf of Central Expressway is Halted, (HALL-ted), officially named HSC Electronic Supply, though I’ve never heard it called by that name. Picture a giant warehouse chock-full of every electronic component imaginable, but with a strong bias toward things that have been out of production for decades, and are happy to live in open-face cardboard boxes with a sharpie-written price on the front. Need a 36V round muffin fan? It’s here. Need a 100ft of braided copper wire? It’s here. Picture a whole grocery store aisle of wall-warts for your every need. And of course, there’s always the daily sale rack out front with a promise of anything for a dollar.
Not into the surplus scene? Go a couple blocks north and drop in on HRO, Ham Radio Outlet. In this world of ubiquitous mobile phones many believe that the world of amateur radio has long since gone the way of the eight-track, but a step into this shop will reveal otherwise. Here is a world where everyone can be an RF engineer, designing their own special tweak on a proven antenna design. Stop in for a little yammering with the locals, those who might still own eight-tracks, or to take in the latest in high-end RF transceivers that will allow you to talk around the globe even after the zombie apocalypse.
In the same building with HRO is another place that shouldn’t be missed: St. John’s Grill. This place seems to have not changed a bit in the fifteen years I’ve known it, and if you go at lunchtime, expect to see a 50ft long line of people waiting to order their signature burger and fries. Don’t let the line scare you though, as these folks have mastered the art of the assembly line and mass-production. Perhaps the proximity of Applied Materials has something to do with that. This is a place where you’re as likely to hear arguments over alternative gate topologies in deep sub-micron design as you are a discussion of the latest Sci-Fi movie.
Now that you’re fed, you’re ready to adventure into Weird Stuff, at the very north end of Lawrence after it turns into Caribbean. This pit trap for pack rats is much like Halted, jammed to the walls with the surplus and the obsolete. Their take is different though, as they are like a museum of every product every made in the PC industry with an emphasis on weird. Looking for that B&W tank game from the 70’s on a CRT? It’s there. Need a replacement 1200baud modem? Yep, it’s right there next to about 50 other types of modems. Scared to visit? Then check out their web cam where you watch people navigate one of the more modern parts of the store.
And lastly, no talk of geek-land in the Valley would be complete without at least a nod to Fry’s Electronics, more or less across the street from HRO and St. Johns. Fry’s has come to be the poster-child store for the geek world, celebrating it with every remodel of their store. If one knows of any geek gathering ground, it’s Fry’s.
So, the next time you’re traveling to the San Francisco Bay Area and are looking to find the essence of Silicon Valley, don’t opt for SFO and the Palo Alto garage. Instead, fly into SJC and take the short trip up to Lawrence Expressway where your every geek need will be indulged. Word of warning, though: Either leave your wallet at home, or plan for boxes full of souvenirs that’ll likely cause the rolling of eyes from 99% of the world — and big knowing smiles from the rest of us as we contemplate our next trip to geek corridor that is Lawrence.