The million bits and bobs at Al Lasher’s Electronics — commonly known as Lasher’s — will go on sale this month before the store’s glowing fluorescent lights shut off for good after 60 years on University Avenue.
Lasher’s last year was upended by COVID-19, like most local businesses, and the shop had struggled in the past with keeping its building seismically updated, but owner Bob Lasher’s decision to finally close the store was personal, rather than financial.
Ellen Gasser, Bob’s sister, passed away in February from breast cancer. She was 74, and she and her brother had for decades co-run the store and divided the duties and broad-ranging expertise required to serve customers in the labyrinthian space.
“So everything fell on me, it’s just too much,” said Bob, describing the consecutive years when he and Gasser worked six days a week without a vacation. “I’m tired, it’s been a long time.”
Bob and Gasser’s dad, Al Lasher, opened the store in 1960 and the siblings took over the business soon after, quickly transitioning from playing in the aisles to ringing up sales once they were tall enough to see over the counter, as Bob likes to say.
Business has dwindled since its heyday of 10 employees and thousands in sales, when students from Cal would swing by for engineering projects and parts for outdated hacking mischief like “phreaking,” or building “blue boxes” to access free international calls. Bob suspects a young Steve Wozniak, who graduated from Cal in 1982, was among them.
“Nobel laureates used to come in here all the time and shop,” Bob added. He also mentioned, on a darker note, that once-UC Berkeley assistant math professor and later “Unabomber,” Ted Kaczynski, had visited several times when he was in the city.
Visits from local college students have died down considerably since the peak of the hardware years, but regulars were still milling around after hours on Wednesday, Lasher’s first day back in business after Thanksgiving.
Using his phone to video chat, Gene Elam turned the screen to Bob and declared, “He knows where everything in here is, within a moment,” panning to the rest of the store with shelves stacked high with electronics in an impossible array of shapes, sizes and uses. Elam has been coming to Lasher’s for 40 years, since he was a video producer and later ran a computer store.
“[It’s] a family, community business, one of those ones that’ll really be missed in this area,” Elam said.
Bob and his wife Alma are working on clearing out the store’s inventory by making as many sales as they can during their last month, and figuring out what to do with decades of technology and unique parts that the store has proudly preserved — or failed to throw away, as Lasher’s website says. This includes a starter motor from a WWII fighter jet that Bob recently came across, and other specialty products that customers say are near-impossible to find elsewhere.
When Lasher’s closes, it’ll be another institution gone, like the recently closed Albatross Pub, that catered to local musicians and artists, or the 94-year-old book bindery Pettingell which will close at the end of the year. Many a Burning Man creation has been illuminated with the multicolored electroluminescent “Cool Neon” wire available at the store, courtesy of the Oakland artist who popularized the product and now imports it from Israel — Benny James Jr. Other artists of many media often came in for spare parts and special projects, Bob said.
Bob will likely keep up his collection of antique radios after he lets go of the electronics store, but the rest of the family’s years of expertise will leave the block along with Lasher’s when they sell the building. Bob’s daughters don’t have much interest in running the store (since they already make more money than him, he was happy to add) and the Lashers are ready to take a break. Once the pandemic lets up, they may even look forward to some travels.
“Before [Ellen] worked here, she went to Europe, and you know — I’ve never been. I’ve never been farther than Colorado,” Bob said. “I’d love to go to Ireland and visit our families back there.”