Collecting Vintage Computers, Part Two

My Commodore Pet 8032, ready to do some computing

Once you have decided that you are going to collect and what areas of the hobby you are going to focus on, there are some factors that you need to consider.

Research

One extremely important factor with any type of collecting is do some research. You will always be learning more as you go and if you have decided to collect old computers you may already have some knowledge of them, but initial research is important as well to give you a basic grounding. It will make you more confident in dealing with other people, and lets face it — if you like something, research about it really shouldn’t be a chore, it will be fun.

Money

I touched on it briefly in part one. The unfortunate reality of life for most of us is that money is always a factor in what we do (more accurately, limits on available money). Think your purchases through. You will need to pay rent/mortgage, put fuel in your vehicle, and put food on the table. If you have a family, unwise spending on your part can negatively affect not just you, but them as well. There will be times when you come across that fantastic once-in-a-lifetime deal, but make sure you stop and consider things carefully, and consult your significant other if need be. Money is often linked to research and familiarity with your hobby — knowledge will allow you to make better decisions.

Space

I know, this may seem like a very mundane factor to consider, but it is important. Depending on what systems you want to collect and how many, do you have enough physical space to display even some of them, much less store them? As with the money factor, do you have a significant other or family that will work with you to compromise on an acceptable amount of space?

You have decided you are going to collect vintage computers or gaming systems and perhaps done a bit of research on what you would like to focus on, figured out how much money you have to spend, and know how much room you have to work with for your future collection. So…just where can you find them? The following are some of the common sources I am aware of or have had success with during my time machine hunting.

Online Buy/Sell/Trade

As I mentioned in part one, the explosion of online services in the past several years has had a dramatic impact on collecting vintage computers, and realistically every other type of collecting as well. Most of the impact I see as positive, but some negative. The ease with which people with different systems can do business is phenomenal, and the scope of what is offered is staggering. Almost anything can be purchased online as long as you have enough money, and therein lies the negative. There are some people selling substandard equipment or plain junk at inflated prices in the hopes of convincing someone it is worth what they are asking.

In addition quoting ‘well, on <insert online market here> they are selling them for…’ is not always an accurate measurement of worth. I can try to sell an item for almost anything — it is the value it closes on at the end of the auction that counts. Overall though, the online markets have done a very good job of popularizing vintage collecting, bringing many items to parts of the world they would not normally be found in. As much as I hate to say it as well, it is a matter of ‘buyer beware’ when it comes to paying an inflated price for an item — people are free to ask whatever amount they want, as long as they are not misrepresenting what they have for sale.

Local 2nd hand stores/flea markets

The local pawn shop, 2nd hand store, or ‘junk’ dealer was at one time arguably the greatest single resource for finding vintage computer equipment (for me it was tied with garage/yard sales). Up until five or six years ago in my area such stores were often a goldmine of equipment and often at a ridiculously low price. In recent years, what computer or gaming equipment that they do have is usually early to mid 1990s, which does not pique my interest for the most part. With the rise of electronics recycling depots and programs, many people are just simply dropping their old stuff off at their local depot instead of bothering to sell or donate it at a thrift shop. Coupled with that, another trend I have noted at a couple of the thrift stores in our area is their refusal to even take computers as donations anymore — it is seemingly too much hassle for them, takes up too much space, and probably does not generate enough revenue to be worthwile.

Garage/yard sales

I have been told that these can be regional phenomena, but spring and fall yard/garage sales have been around where I live for as long as I can remember. As I mentioned above, garage sales have netted me as many pieces in my collection as the 2nd hand stores, and you often have the thrill of haggling to the last nickel for the item you are salivating over. Never show yourself as too eager!!

Hanging out a shingle

Another technique that has proven useful to me in the past was ‘hanging out my shingle’, or putting up an ad at the local corner store or bulletin board that you are looking for old computers or games, along with the virtual equivalent on regional markets such as kijiji.com. The advantage of this is many people who contact you will basically give you their old system if you will come and get it…they often just want to be rid of it. The drawback is that you may have to wade through a large number of items you just aren’t interested in. Sometimes picking up that item that isn’t in your area of interest can be a good idea — if you know other collectors who might want it, having items to trade with them is always fun.

Recycling Depots

Depending on where you live, some electronics recycling depots are open to selling or giving away some of the equipment that comes through their doors. Your mileage may vary with this however, as the main recycling organization in my area (for example) has an official policy to my knowledge of not allowing any electronics out the doors once they are dropped off. Perhaps others have had better luck, but at least one other collector I know in my area has tried without success on this front as well.

Community Organizations

We have a couple different organizations in my area dedicated to providing low income families or specifically children in said families with more contemporary computers capable of internet access. I was involved with one of these for a time, and contributed some newer equipment and my time in trade for some vintage equipment they had gathering dust in the back of their storage. This avenue has the bonus of helping your community while doing something you enjoy, and perhaps doing a bit of both teaching and learning along the way.

Festivals/Collector Groups

Aside from the VCF events, there are other vintage computer/electronics/hacking events that take place all over the world. Though it is doubtful that you would find any fantastic deals at these events, they are often a great place to make friends and contacts, share information, and just generally revel in the glory of a bunch of other people that are just as enthusiastic about their hobby as you are J

Schools

This source of vintage machines has become less important in the past several years as most school boards have either recycled, sold, or thrown out old equipment forgotten in back rooms, but there is still the occasional location that has not ‘cleaned out’ their retired equipment. Polite inquiries to your local school or school board may yield some results. Planned recycling by the I.T. departments has become more common as well, though I have seen pallets of decommissioned computers and other equipment offered at local auction services.

University/Corporate surplus Sales

Post-secondary education and some corporations will hold regular or one-time surplus sales to rid themselves of obsolete or redundant equipment. I have had some good results with both in the past. Though they are extremely rare today, these sources were and still are sometimes the best for pre-personal computer vintage mainframe or timesharing systems

Other collectors

Making connections with other collectors, perhaps starting some type of collectors group in your area can sometimes yield excellent opportunities for trade, and for acquiring items if people decide to liquidate parts of their collections. Local relationships, while often fewer in number than online, have the advantages of no (or at least low) shipping cost, and better opportunity to examine things before you strike a deal

Video Game Buy/Sell/Trade stores

Personally I have not had a lot of luck with this venue as a couple of bad experiences have left me cautious, though I’m sure many have good experiences. The intent of a video game store is to make money — they are a business. As a result, you will probably find prices higher than you would see ‘in the wild’. I think best results are often obtained at ‘mom and pop’ type gaming stores as opposed to larger chains.

The subject of obtaining vintage equipment naturally leads to how you present yourself when dealing with other people, either online or in person. I do my best to stick by the following personal guidelines to make things more pleasant for all involved :

Don’t Argue over prices

There is haggling, and then there is being argumentative and insulting. Sometimes it can be a fine line. If I feel someone is asking an outrageous price for an item, I’ll either move on and not bother with them at all, or suggest to them that said item is not worth what they are asking to me, but may be worth that much to someone else, and then offer them what I am willing to pay. In some cases, people are not willing to negotiate their price, and that is their right, just as it is your right to walk away. Online flame wars and arguments I especially like to avoid, as they lead absolutely nowhere and usually degenerate into nothing but insults by those who are only bold because they are anonymous.

Respect others knowledge or lack thereof

You may find people who have a staggering amount of information to share, and you may find them in the most unusual places. A rather disheveled old fellow who frequented a place I worked years ago (a hardware/farm supplies store) turned out to have worked in the 60s and 70s with some of the early DEC PDP line of systems. I had several good conversations with him about them. On the other hand, you may often have contact with people who are either unfamiliar with computers, or very new to collecting them. Be gentle. Be patient. Do your best to help others, as tomorrow you may be in the same position yourself because all knowledge is relative, and you never know from whom you may learn something new and valuable. Remember the words of Bill and Ted…’Be excellent to each other’.

Be patient

It is often very tempting (and I have succumbed myself) to always go the path of least resistance and throw money at collectables, stretching your resources far too thin to obtain every deal right away. I have found that the more patient I am, the more contacts I cultivate, sooner or later the items I hope to find come my way at a reasonable price. This isn’t always going to be the case, and I do realize that as time passes, the old systems become older, and more rare and one must grab certain opportunities as they come up. Just temper your enthusiasm with good judgment and common sense. I know it may be a difficult decision when you’re standing there looking at that Commodore SX-64, but you may need to buy groceries or pay for your child’s school supplies instead. For some collectors, the thrill of the chase is often as important as actually possessing the item. Locating and securing that rare machine you have searched for, especially when you arrange a good deal or rescue it from the disposal bin, can be satisfying.

The reader may notice that I do not include a single dollar amount anywhere in this article pertaining to these vintage systems. This is intentional. I have attempted to provide my observations as a collector of a couple decades and the observations of others I know in such a way that almost anyone living anywhere that had an interest might be able to benefit in some way. Values are fluid — they flex, they change over time, they differ from one country to another, from one region of a country to another. What is common in Toronto may be somewhat rare in Winnipeg. What can be found in any 2nd hand store in California may be an impossible find in Seattle or Halifax. Systems everyone used to own in Paris or Moscow may be unheard of in Canada. Value and worth are often personal as well. I may be willing to pay a great deal of money for a particular system that others would have no interest in. Determining market value is something that each collector, or group of collectors and organizations do on their own. It comes with experience and knowledge of what is out there, and a local market value can often be changed by someone willing and able to pay a much larger amount of money. When trying to determine value and what you ‘should’ pay for an item, you must rely on your own judgment and common sense as well as the availability of the item. Some careful research beforehand will benefit you in negotiations as well. Joining online forums and groups can give you a support structure to draw on for opinions. Of course, free is always ideal, but only you ultimately can determine how much you are willing to pay for something.

I work with technology, both old and new. I like heavy music. I practice martial arts.