Parts Superstores

In Shanghai last month, I spent an afternoon walking along East Beijing Road. East Beijing Road is not more than a half mile long, but I spent more than three hours walking through the shops there because they are like no others I have ever seen in the West. The road is a mall for making things! Little store fronts, each with their own hardware specialty, are packed down the street. Some sell gears and bearings, others endmills and drill presses, and still others all shapes and sizes of metal and plastic stock. Parts parts parts!

At one corner, people mill about in a six story tall building containing what seems like every piece of electronics hardware in the world. It's packed! Shopkeepers try to engage you immediately if you glance at the wares in their cabinets. Children play in the narrow aisles about the booths.

Oh how I wish we had these kinds of parts superstores in the US as well. Maybe we did at some point. I guess we have flea markets and Swapfests, but wouldn't it be great if they were permanent? Let's go to the component mall! You could always go and get immediately what you were looking for. Or find things that you didn't know you needed! Sure we have Mcmaster and digikey at our fingertips, but there is truly a tangible value to walking about through a store where everything is in front of you. I find that having all the building blocks close around me stimulate my imagination. Neurons that didn't fire together before now might. Possibilities suggest themselves. Alternative solutions are just a stall away.

Just like a city, concentrating all these people with similar interests together makes knowledge sharing faster. More permanent networks form. Wisdom gets dense.

People keep talking about how we need more engineers in the US. Shops and community like these would be great for innovation. Just give everyone the building blocks and instill some wonder.

Parts superstores inspire wonder. And wonder is a damn powerful thing.

Update 9/24/12: I visited the hackerspace xinchejian in Shanghai last month and spoke with some of the builders there. They make regular trips to East Beijing Road, but they say it is harder than it looks to find the part you need. Hm. Maybe you could tip a part locator expert guy to help you.

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