If you’ve been on Route 128 in Needham, chances are you’ve seen the distinctive You-Do-It electronics sign. Its retro lettering with the neutron logo is a landmark on what was once called “America’s Technology Highway.” The You-Do-It sign was conceived and designed by the founder of the techie utopia retail outlet, John Ahigian, who is now 90 years old. Always a forward thinker, Ahigian started the business almost 70 years ago as a TV and radio repair shop in Boston on Clarendon Street, when TVs were becoming commonplace. Sure enough, You-Do-It became a major distributor of radio and TV tubes and electronic components, and Ahigian moved the store to the border of Boston’s inner beltway, which at the time was a two-lane road. It seemed ill advised, as there were few businesses and not a lot of traffic. But Ahigian’s instincts proved correct, and as the nation’s first high-tech corridor attracted engineers and tinkerers, his electronics superstore boomed.
Melissa Roy, one of Ahigian’s grandchildren, remembers playing under his desk, organizing peg hooks and alphabetizing paper work. Roy, 37, is the third generation to carry on the business, which also includes her parents, aunts and uncles, and the rest of her extended family. Roy handles marketing and promotion for the store, whose motto used to be “easy to get to and hard to leave.” Although not a hardcore technophile herself, Roy knows her way around diodes, transistors, IC’s, capacitors, and resistors, and can tell you that breadboards are not just for the kitchen. She helps work the sales floor, part of the 30,000-square-foot building which includes company offices and warehouse facilities.
While Radio Shack went bankrupt three years ago, and Circuit City before that, Roy says You-Do-It has survived by evolving with the times. The company long abandoned its 672-page printed catalog of obscure electronica, but still carries everything from AC/DC adapters to woofers. Roy’s favorite item is Raspberry Pi, a tiny and affordable computer that can be programmed to become a robot, gaming center, or smart home sensor.
“Our customers are both everyday consumers and professionals. They like that they can come into a brick and mortar store, look and touch a product, and talk to our knowledgeable sales staff,” says Roy.
But some things are still old school: with every purchase comes a free white vinyl You-Do-It pocket protector for pens and pencils. “Yes, we still have those as a give-away,” says Roy. “But that’s the thing – nerds and geeks are cool now.”
She spoke with the Globe about her business and family.
“My favorite part of being at the store is that I’m continuing the legacy my grandfather started 69 years ago. He still comes to the store, and my grandmother, who is 87, handles the financial aspects and assists in the payables. They are so proud that the store is continuing, and between them and my father, mother, brother, uncle, aunt and cousins, we all make decisions together. It’s nice to be able to work with my family – we help each other out and have the same goal in mind, which is the success of the business. There’s so much heart and history in our company and the fact we can carry that on is pretty awesome.
“I love having the ability to work in different areas of the company and be creative. There’s a lot of collaboration between the older and younger generation, and if my grandmother mentions running a promotion, for example, everyone starts bouncing ideas off each other. I’ve been coming to the store since I was very young, and I learned from the beginning the importance of working hard and not taking things for granted. My family never pushed the business on any of us, and I went to business school and thought I would work in the fashion industry, but even then, was still working here part-time. Finally I decided to come back full-time.
“I want to make You-Do-It not just a store but a destination. We are actually the pioneers of the maker space – my grandfather had workbenches and tools where hobbyists could come in and work on projects. I have an old ad in the archives that says, “Bring in your radio, TV, phone, and repair it yourself. Stay as long as you wish and have fun.” At some point we ended that and got rid of all the benches, but we’re going back to that idea — having modern maker spaces and workshops, seminars, and classes.
“The numbers of electronic hobbyists haven’t diminished – if anything, there is a revival, especially with the creation of Arduino and emphasis on STEAM. A lot of our do-it-yourselfers are quite knowledgeable on the products. And I love the young kids who are like little geniuses – their eyes light up when they see the selection. My own son is four and he comes in and plays here like I used to. He sits at my desk and pretends he’s running the business. We’ll see if he decides to go that route.”