By Kip Tabb | Outer Banks Voice on January 17, 2021
Harry Gessford is at the counter of his Radio Shack store in Nags Head, entering the final stages of closing his business. There isn’t much left in the store now. There are the albums, the LPs predating digital music, CDs and downloads stacked on the floor. A few display racks are still inside and there are three or four of them in front of the store. Other than that, it’s an empty shell.
The 4,000-square-foot space has been sold to the Outer Banks Community Church that used to be the Ocean View Baptist Church.
More than most businesses, Gessford’s Radio Shack has borne witness to the sweeping technological changes that have reshaped communication and entertainment in our culture. And when he opened in 1978 at the Surfside Plaza in Nags Head, his inventory was a lot different.
“I sold a lot of TV antennas back then because not everywhere had cable TV in the late seventies, early eighties. A lot of TV antennas and accessories, cables splitters and all that stuff. And we sold a lot of CB radios and car stereos,” he said.
“When I first opened up, there weren’t any telephones [for sale in stores],” he continued. “They were still controlled by the phone company. It was 1980, ‘79 or something that broke up the phone companies and then they started carrying all these cordless phones. That was probably one of the neatest things I ever found.”
Radio Shack always gave its franchise owners a lot of leeway in what they wanted to carry in their stores, so Gessford stocked records and then CDs.
“It was about two-thirds Radio Shack and one-third records,” he said. “Around the year 2000, everybody started doing downloads, so that started hurting music sales. But for some reason, we kept our music going pretty good.”
The road to owning a Radio Shack in Nags Head began before Gessford got to the Outer Banks. His father was in the Navy, his mother from Wanchese. At one point, near the end of his father’s time in the service, the family moved from Pearl Harbor to Wanchese.
“My dad was in the Navy and was stationed in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and that’s where I grew up. Then we moved here in 1966, from Hawaii to Wanchese.,” he said.
“That was a cultural shift,” he added. “I Remember when we first moved in 1966, I would come over to the beach. There was nothing here. The Bypass was a real bypass. There was nothing on it.”
Then his father was again transferred, this time to Yorktown. Gessford finished high school in the Hampton Road.
“I took electronics at vo-tech. I just had an interest in electronics and stuff,” he said.
From that interest in electronics, the move to a Radio Shack franchise seemed like a natural progression, Gessford said. “There was no [Radio Shack] store here on the Outer Banks back then in ’78. So I applied for the franchise and got approved.”
There was, however, some work and business experience that prepared him for owning a franchise business.
“The family bought the Snowbird Drive-in in 1970, so I worked there for ten years,” he said. “Me and my sister owned it up till his last summer. We sold it to Gus [Zinovis] of Mulligans. It’s been at that location since 1958.”
In 1992 he relocated Radio Shack to the Croatan Center, a shopping plaza where the businesses own their space.
“They built this place, the shopping center, and it was condo retail. I thought, ‘why don’t I get a space over here?’ Instead of paying rent to somebody, I’m paying rent to myself,” he said.
The move proved to be a good one and Radio Shack’s last summer, in 2020, proved to be one of the best ever for business. So Gessford goes out on a winning note.
“Being that I owned this space, I didn’t have to take a lot of money and make it work,” he said. “It’s time to retire. Take life a little easier.”