Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 137 / JANUARY 1992 / PAGE 80

Computer flea markets. (includes related article on buying used computers)
by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Buying computer equipment is never easy--especially when you're trying to build a home office. Salespeople are notoriously unhelpful, prices are high, and stores often have only a limited selection of hardware and software. You can spend months looking for a system that meets your particular needs and your pocketbook's limits.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. Mail-order vendors offer good prices and a variety of hardware and software. The trouble with mail order is that some people prefer not to spend their hard-earned money on something they can't examine before the sale. Most buyers are happy ordering by mail, but some people still don't like mail order, no matter how many happy endings they've heard. For these folks and everyone else, there's another way to get a good deal: computer flea markets of fairs.

Computer fairs have a long history. In the 1970s and early 1980s, personal computers were rare and exotic machines torn from the pages of Popular Science. It was seat-of-the-pants computing in those days. Then, computer fairs were where people with a common love for uncommon machines came together to share discoveries.

Today, user groups and entrepreneurs sponsor computer shows and flea markets for the same purpose. Amateur radio operators also host gatherings called hamfests that usually include computers and other gear.

Flea markets can be found throughout the country. Some are run at parks or drive-in theaters; others at hotels and motels. The best way to find out about them is to ask at your local user group meeting or on bulleting board systems (BBSs). Some regional computer magazines list them, and the bigger fairs advertise in newspapers and on radio. You can still find equipment and programs you haven't seen in years, as well as hardware and software at prices you won't believe.

Sound too good to be true? Well, a computer flea market is not a perfect environment; there are problems. These shows can be very crowded. If you have a touch of claustrophobia, you don't want to go to indoor shows. One I attended was closed by the state fire marshal because of overcrowding. Though you might think that would be the end of the show, you would be wrong. Dealers just kept selling in a light spring rain as they moved their wares from the exhibition hall to their trucks.

There are other problems. Shows are not the place to go if you don't know what you're looking for. The dealers are often there because they know computers and they want to make extra money to supplement their day jobs. They may know more than the guy in the computer store who's trying to sell you a computer based on the color of its case, but they often don't have time to explain things.

If you don't know what cable you need to get your printer and computer talking, they might be able to help you. Usually, however, there's too much going on for them to do so. On the other hand, if you know specifically what you're looking for, you can probably find what you need in a hurry.

It's best to do your homework--and not just so you can confidently say that you want a serial mouse and not a bus mouse. You're going to see more computer goodies per square foot than you've ever seen in your life. You may go in planning to buy a box of floppy disks and walk out with a VGA monitor, an 80486 motherboard, and an Apple IIe. Leaving your cash at home won't help; many dealers take plastic.

You should also be careful of other traps. The folks who sell at a flea market are as honest as anyone, but they can be hard to find if you need help. If something goes wrong with your new modem or other peripheral, you may be out of luck.

You need to be cautions of buying used, homemade, or no-name equipment. Used goods might not work as advertised. While someone with technical skill can build a perfectly fine 80386 computer in the garage, that person might not be able to help you if something goes wrong with in in a week or a month. One reason IBM can charge so much for its machines is that is stands behind its products 100 percent. The Romans had a phrase you should remember: caveat emptor--let the buyer beware.

Brand-name computers and components can also be found at these shows for incredible deals--40 percent below list price is not uncommon. Dealers usually can sell goods with these remarkable discounts because, in the ever-changing world of computers, yesterday's PC can be as hard to sell as yesterday's newspaper. These orphaned systems often fall into the hands of fleamarket merchants, but that doesn't mean they're worthless. They're just harden to sell in sufficient volume to justify giving them room on the shelves.

When you're buying an older system, you should bear one potential pitfall in mind: Some systems and peripherals are too slow for modem software. A real IBM XT may be a steal if all you're going to run is a world processor or a text-based spreadsheet, but you're wasting you money if you want to run desktop publishing software under Microsoft Windows. An older system simply doesn't have the horsepower necessary to run these programs effectively. If it will run them at all.

Conversely, you might be tempted to purchase an old version of a software product. But look it over carefully. You might discover that it can't do the job you need done.

Rules to Save By

Still want to try out the flea markets? You should. You won't find better deals anywhere. But to make sure you get your money's worth, here are a few rules you should keep in mind.

The first rule is not to buy anything at first glanca. I did this the first time I attended a computer flea market, and only ten seconds later, I was sorry. I was looking for a copy of Datastar, an old CP/M database program, for my faithful Kaypo computer (this was in 1986, and you could'n find CP/M software anywhere). Just inside the door was a man selling old CP/M software for $20 a package. I grabbed a copy of Datastar immediately, congratulating myself on my good fortune. There wasn't happier person around--until I turned the corner and found another person selling every CP/M program I'd ever heard of for $10 a pop.

The second rule is a relative of the first. Go through the entire show before you lay money down for anything. No matter how great the deal sounds, there may be a better one on the next table. If you're looking for a part or a program for an older computer, don't grab the first thing that comes alaong. You'll find that flea markets are the only places where you can find a selection of things to buy, even for your senior citizen system.

Another rule is that is a vendor takes credit cards, use them. You may have to pay more for the privilege (a 5-percent premium isn't uncommon), but don't let that stop you. For a few additional dollars, you buy the opportunity to stop payment if your purchase turns out to be a dud. Some credit cards extend the manufacturer's warrantly on anything you buy with them.

Whenever you're shopping for bargains, it's a good idea to get to the market early and park as close as you can to the site. You stand a better chance of beating the hordes if you arrive with the morning light. Computer people aren't early birds.

You should bring along some packing materials to wedge around equipment in the rear seat. Most of the time you won't need it, but now and then you'll find a piece of used equipment that doesn't have any packaging.

Always look carefully at anything you buy. There may be a very good reason that top-of-the-line brand-name computer costs so little; it may have been dropped at the store. If you don't have a chance to see if a machine works and it shows signs of having been through hard times, don't buy it no matter how great the deal. It doesn't matter how inexpensive something is if it doesn't work.

Now Get Your Wings

I know that's a lot of things to worry about. But trust me. If you go to one of these shows, you'll go back again. Prices tend to be 20 to 40 percent less than in the stores. You'll never find more hardware and software in one place. You may even find something that you didn't know you needed.

If you computer isn't a part of the PC and Macintosh mainstream, these shows are often the only way you can get anything for your machine. Besides, there's the adventure of the flea market experience: You never know what you'll find when you walk through the doors. Computer treasure is waiting to be found at a flea market near you. See you at the show.