Electronics engineer Bruce Lane, is a fanatic about swap meets—the events where techies meet to buy and sell used electronic and computer parts. He says that one of the most interesting things he has ever bought or sold was an ac power source.
"I sold a variable frequency, variable output power source built in the late 1970s,"Lane says. "The buyer said he was going to use it as a variable frequency drive in a machine used to make robotic parts! I was surprised because the buyer was a hobbyist, not a manufacturing professional, and also because the source was never designed to drive a heavy inductive load."
Transactions like this can be found at swap meets throughout the country. From Silicon Valley, CA, to Queens, NY, techies gather weekly, monthly, or annually to buy and sell used electronic and computer equipment. Some people buy parts that they will use at work; others make purchases to support their hobbies.
The swap meet has come a long way from its beginnings, back when the western half of the U.S. was being settled. As the name suggests, early events were a way for people to get something they needed or wanted by swapping, or trading something they didn't want or need. While there is no actual swapping of goods without money today, the swap meet has gradually evolved into a flea market-type setting in which a few thousand buyers browse through vendors' products and make price offers. The "techie" swap meet is no different, though it is distinguished by what is for sale.
"Our swap meet has a very technically knowledgeable crowd," says Steve Finberg, organizer of the MIT swap meet called The Flea at MIT. "Most people are looking for hard-to-find hardware for themselves or for work. We have a charter that keeps it from turning into a general purpose flea market; everything has to be hi-tech."
There are a lot of electronic and computer wares on display at a swap meet—from computer monitors and towers to beakers, oscilloscopes, and watt meters, to radio tubes and parts, and transformers. You name it, someone is bound to have it, or at least the parts that could make it. They are often willing to haggle for any part if it is important to them.
If this sounds a lot like eBay, it is. EBay is, in fact, a kind of online swap meet although at a traditional swap meet there is no time element for buying items involved. Has eBay hurt the traditional swap meet?
"EBay probably has not hurt us or helped us," Finberg says of attendance. "However, while you used to have to come to a swap meet to find that treasured item, the social interaction [on eBay] is different," he says. "At a swap meet you can actually talk to the person selling an item and you can also strike a deal."
Naturally, Finberg would be passionate about swap meets since he organizes one—an event he calls "a party for 4,000 of his closest friends." But what about the swappers themselves?
"Ebay has had an effect, most likely causing a decline in attendance and in the quantity of the type of parts there," contends Lane, who works for the electronic services division of the Washington State Patrol. "However, this may not be a bad thing because eBay has great deals and opened up the selling of exotic electronics to people who may have never gone to or known about swap meets. Ebay reminds people that swap meets may work better because there is less chance to rip off buyers."
For Howard Cook, a former tool-and-die maker turned swap meet vendor, eBay has given him a different sort of outlet."EBay is helpful for different reasons," Cook explains. "I have an e-mail group through [eBay] and we use each other for help and reference when we are confused about parts."
Lane, who also runs an online electronic and hobbyist components site called Blue Feather Technologies (www.bluefeathertech.com) frequents many of the swap meets up and down the West Coast looking for HAM, or amateur radio equipment. He says that he runs into different types of people at a swap meet—techies, hobbyists, scrap dealers looking to make a quick buck, even retired engineers who go for the nostalgia. There are also spur-of-the-moment shoppers as well as a core group of buyers and sellers who come to meets every year, he adds.
"Sometimes it's like geek city in here," says Darron Burke, an audio engineer who was selling a few items at the MIT swap meet. "Last month I saw a guy and his daughter with radio set scouting out the place. Some people can get really weird with electronic stuffs."
Then, of course, there is the buying technique that can be found at any swap meet.
"The haggling is the coolest part," says 16-year-old seller Don Cowan of Rhode Island. "I think yelling about how much stuff should cost is great." Cowan, who became a swap meets regular after going to the event with his father for three years, adds that vendors often swap parts with each other if they think that they can sell the parts for a better profit.
One thing to keep in mind at a swap meet: there's no rhyme or reason as to how parts are valued.
"You need to remember this," Finberg says: "Everything that's at a swap meet, it's all in the eye of the beholder.