This was the moment of discovery I had been waiting years for, but it was not out in the “real” world, where I had been wasting time and gasoline, but firmly lodged in virtual reality. The list of sellers’ addresses for my first weeks’ purchases was made up of small towns hither and yon: Newton, Ill.; Baker City, Ore.; Suwanee, Ga.; Saguache, Colo.; Waterford, Mich.; Pike, N.H.; Kennewick, Wash.; Kailua, Hawaii; Erlanger; Ky.; Titusville, Fl.; Huntsville, Ala.; Lubbock, Texas. Most sellers, I learned, are not radio shop owners or specialists in radios; they are doing business from their homes. They typically have a list of several items up for auction, including but a single transistor radio. No wonder it was so hard to find one in the wild.
Since this moment of epiphany, I’ve been buying on the Internet exclusively for the last three months. As would be expected, I no longer even think about transistor radios on family vacations. In fact, collecting has become a hobby that I enjoy after my (now 11-year-old) son is in bed. (I’m glad to say he has not yet reassigned his Star Wars collecting to the Internet.) My first month of this cyberhobby could be characterized as a feeding frenzy fueled by pent-up demand. I paid high prices and bought frequently. The wisdom of setting a limit for what you are willing to spend on an item, and then sticking to it, is widely accepted. While this no doubt works for some people some of the time, experience reveals that rationality does not always prevail; otherwise what fun would it be? The radio (or whatever) is simply too incredible to pass up and you know it will never appear on the auction again no matter how long you live; either that or you’ll be broke by then. Another dilemma arises when the person bidding you up is someone you have been losing out to regularly lately-a bully with deep pockets. If you get sucked into a battle of egos, the results can be expensive. I have one radio worth $150 tops that I paid $277.50 for as a souvenir of such a cyber-skirmish.
Unlike a traditional auction, eBay auctions end at a specified time-exactly seven days, to the second, from when an item first appears. Sometimes a particularly collectible item will remain at a relatively low price until the last day. Then the price begins to increase as the deadline nears. The real action is often in the last two to three minutes when you finally find out how eager the competition is. It takes 15 to 30 seconds, depending on how busy eBay is and how fast your modem connection is, for a bid to be entered, confirmed and processed. This makes trying to win in the closing minutes both nerve-wracking and exhilarating. The heart races and adrenaline rushes when you end up going right down to the wire for an item you really covet. I’ve won a few like this, and lost many more. One notable loss came as a novice, when the item at stake was the first shirt pocket-size Japanese transistor that I had seen on the auction; a rare, tiny “Marvel.” I was excited and bid wildly, far surpassing the book value. My adversary, who won this seesaw battle, followed up with a sardonic e-mail:
Thanks so much for costing me an extra $128-maybe I’ll add that to the price of the Toshiba you’re bidding on.
It was punctuated with one of those smiley faces that experienced Web types use, so I knew everything was cool.
There is one rather significant downside to the Internet auction-I find it addictive. Early on, the activity seemed authentically connected to primal hunter-gatherer impulses deep within. But after a short while, it became clear that there was a good dose of obsessive-compulsive behavior mixed in. For instance, I once brought to the dinner table an alarm clock set to ring just in time for a final round of bidding. I have also rearranged a business trip to be at home for a critical auction. And, more than once, I have bought a duplicate of a radio I already own hoping to get one in better condition. I am sure that the addicting element is the “chase.” Searching out, tracking, bidding and winning is at least as rewarding as possessing the actual prize. I didn’t realize this fully until, as a frequent bidder, I began receiving lists of radios for sale from other collectors. My interest in buying from these lists or from a radios-for-sale site is very low. How this addiction will end remains to be seen. Obviously, I am hoping to do it without professional help. It would be terribly demoralizing to pay the counseling bill while thinking about the transistors that could have been bought with those precious funds.