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Web Crawl: Radio Daze

A collector of vintage radios discovers the thrill of online auctions.

I have just finished tearing open a package that I was too excited to open with my usual savoir faire. In my haste I remained careful not to damage the precious contents which now rest safely in my hands-a rare and stunning 1958 Toshiba transistor radio. It is a completely oddball-looking design with the tuning dial perched like a robot head atop a perforated metal speaker “body.” It sports a couple of unusual features.

The tuning dial lights up at the push of a button, making it very bedside-friendly. More peculiar is a microphone jack in the side (anticipating karaoke I suppose). Remarkably, although 40 years old, it is in nearly perfect condition with no noticeable scratches, dents or dings. As I turn it around slowly, admiring all sides and features, I feel a sense of smugness. This jewel of a transistor did not come to me easily, but is in fact the pinnacle of a four-year search.

My interest in transistor radios began with a beautifully designed coffee-table book, Made in Japan: Transistor Radios of the 1950s and 1960s. Given to me by a friend who knows of my background in industrial design, the book captures the variety and vitality of the first transistorized consumer electronics. Perhaps, I mused, it would be nice to get one of these cool little transistor radios to keep on my nightstand. Little did I know what I had unleashed on my unsuspecting household.

The search got under way officially on a family vacation about four years ago with casual poking around antique and “collectible” shops. (To reduce my guilt about dragging my 7-year-old son along, we also started to collect figures and models from the era of the first Star Wars films.) After several years, our territory had reached small towns in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York and occasionally more distant locations-Nebraska and Oregon. My wife and son were extremely good-natured about this preoccupation and became accustomed to the refrain-“Let’s pull over here. This is just the kind of place that will have one.”

The results, however, were downright disappointing. Four years of poking around and pulling over later, I had managed to collect only about a dozen second-rate radios. Not a single one was pictured in my inspirational coffee-table book. When I asked shop owners about the scarcity, one of three answers came back: “There was a guy here last week who bought them all, he comes through looking about once a month”; “We used to have a lot, but not anymore”; “People just throw ‘em away when they stop working, they’re not worth anything.” With such discouraging results, my enthusiasm and interest waned.

In desperation, I even tried a radio club annual meet which involved a long drive, sans family. More meager results. I was slightly encouraged last winter when friends invited me to an auction of “scientific instruments.” The merchandise turned out to be much more eclectic than advertised, and included two nice transistor radios. Although they were not nearly as striking as the ones in my book, I bought them anyway. When I asked the auctioneer about the date of his next auction, he revealed that it took about a year to find enough items to have such a specialized event. Great. So in another year I might get a look at two more radios.

Then, a couple of months ago, I was having a conversation with a colleague at work totally unrelated to my languishing quest. We were talking about the Internet and she mentioned that her husband had found an interesting auction site: eBay (www.ebay.com). In a few days, the circuit was completed and the light bulb went on above my head: transistor radios! I called to get the Web address, and, within 10 minutes of logging on, I was in total shock, looking at a list of more than 300 transistor radios for sale. The postings had detailed condition reports and, best of all, most included a photo. To my delight, many were recognizable as being from my original source of inspiration, Made in Japan: Transistor Radios of the 1950s and 1960s.

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.

A tremendous upside to the Internet auction, and one I was not at all sure about at the outset, is that business is conducted extremely reliably. In more than 80 transactions, I have not had a single bad business experience. Radios arrive according to promised schedules and most often in the condition described. In the few instances when the condition has not been as described, sellers have cheerfully taken the item back and provided a full refund. What does it mean when you can have this many successful transactions with strangers you will likely never see eye-to-eye, strung out all across the world? My interpretation is that either people are basically honest, or the federal laws against mail fraud are among the most potent deterrents ever brought to bear on human behavior.

I’m about to enter phase two of Internet collecting-having my own auctions on eBay. Of all the transistors I have collected to date, probably half are keepers. The also-rans will soon take their place among the 200 to 300 transistors available weekly on eBay. I am anxious to find out if, on average, I can recoup my original expenditures. From informal tracking, it appears that prices for identical models in similar condition can vary by as much as 100 percent, so it is difficult to predict how the selling phase will turn out. But I need cash desperately to be able to continue. Although I have nearly satisfied my craving for the radios that remind me of my adolescence, and have far too many to fit on my nightstand, I have also moved on to new territory. My original motivation has shifted as the result of a startling discovery about what else is on the Internet auction-which turns out to be just about everything I could want for a well-rounded collection of striking industrial design.

For example, during the same four-year search for the elusive transistor radios, I was also on the lookout for an even more obscure Polaroid “Polavision” instant 8mm movie system. This novel and technologically remarkable product was the brainstorm of one of my inventor-entrepreneur idols, Dr. Edwin Land. Sadly, Polavision never caught on with consumers. Because it had a short lifespan and meager sales, finding an outfit 25 years later proved fruitless over the course of the multiyear search. But one night, while on the Internet auction, I decided to search under the word “Polavision.” Nothing came up the first time or for the first two months. But eventually it appeared, and for $51 I bought a complete Polavision outfit in mint condition from a seller in Anchorage, Alaska. It even came with four cartridges of home movies of a 1970s Christmas. (Only once over the years had a used-camera dealer professed to be able to put a “Polavision” camera in my hands, and this was at a price of $1,000-if his source still had it, which they didn’t.)

Recently, just out of curiosity, I returned to one of the local antique malls that I used to comb through periodically hoping to score a radio. With five floors, a couple hundred dealer booths, and thousands of items, I needed to switch into a mode of concentrated scanning, allowing my gaze to lock in only on small boxlike objects with metal grills. After an hour of intense searching I departed empty-handed, as usual. But instead of feeling let down, I felt incredibly smug about being hooked up with a cable modem to the Internet: the mall of all malls, open 24 hours a day for my convenience, with a built-in scanning mode that locks in only to “transistors.” It’s almost too good to be true.

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