Is Your Brain On eBay
had so much: loving wife, adoring daughter (well...), nice home -- a life. Then
he discovered junk.
long ago, my wife thought it would be a great [Image] idea to unload some of the
crap cluttering our house. Most of this crap came from dead people--dead aunts,
dead grandparents, dead mother. There were silver compotes, Gorham coasters,
maps of the Meuse-Argonne offensive from World War I, ancient Swingline
staplers, fruity-tooty tiny Limoges cocoa cups, tons of Spode Tower china, four
broken-down and chipped Louis XIV end tables, a lurking grandfather clock
("Hideous," according to my wife), a shoeshine kit, broken watches, a
Danish meat cutter, a footstool made by Appalachian hillbillies--that kind of
thing. It was all the stuff that all of us get when the old folks go. And it was
everywhere--in the basement, in the attic, in the closets, on the walls, under
the beds, freaking out my wife so thoroughly that one day she seriously
threatened to give everything to the suffering homeless. Can you imagine?
my dead body," I said.
you get rid of it, then," she said, rubbing her temples.
only the premier online auction site, is all," I said. "It's the
nation's virtual flea market! The place on the Internet where America circulates
and recirculates its junk!"
she said. "Whatever."
myself thought I'd never come up with a better idea. No garage sales for me,
what with the coffee-stinking early birders trampling through the boxwoods at 6
a.m., and no dealing with the local consignment shop, either, where the
doddering blue-hairs want to take 30 cents on the dollar. Yes, it seemed to me
that eBay, at www.ebay.com on your Internet browser, was the modern, fashionable
way to go. I'd sign on, sign up, and within a month's time unload everything
that stood in my way--and make some pretty fine coin in the process, with which
I would buy myself a nice new fly rod and my wife maybe one of those cool but
very expensive eight-pound Oreck vacuum cleaners. We'd have room to spare. We
could start anew, as my wife has always dreamed, living with objects that we
liked and bought, instead of with a load of last-will-and-testament spider
traps. That was my general plan. But before I started in on my own stuff, I
thought it best to take a practice spin with someone else's junk. I went down to
the Salvation Army, browbeat the nice counter lady, returned with an old plastic
typewriter that cost me six dollars (not eight!), conducted a little online
research, gave eBay my credit-card number, took the eBay name of fish8, and
wrote up my auction notice, laying in as much Madison Avenue-type huck as I
is a terrific example of the super-swank and increasingly rare red portable
Valentine typewriter made by Olivetti--and designed, in 1969, by the great
Italian designer Ettore Sottsass. Said noted British design expert Penny Spark a
while back: "[This typewriter is] an appendage of contemporary life rather
than a piece of office machinery." Indeed, Sottsass himself once said that
he designed the Valentine to be an "anti-machine machine," for use
"anyplace but an office." If you've ever entertained the idea of
entering into a union with an actual typewriter, this is the actual typewriter
to do it with. It speaks volumes, both about you and about itself. And it's
nearly perfect. What more could you want? Good luck. And good bidding!
I thought to myself, Increasingly rare? If I say so! Sottsass a great designer?
Could have been! Penny Spark noted? In my book! Nearly perfect? Near as I can
days later, when the dust settled and the auction ended, I swung downstairs and
found my wife at the kitchen sink, head bent to the day's dishes. I reminded her
of the typewriter and asked her how much she thought it had finally sold for.
hundred thirty-two dollars and fifty cents!" I nearly shouted. "Two
hundred thirty-two dollars and fifty cents! That thing cost me six clams! I
netted $226.50! Can you believe that? Well, can you?"
rubbed my hands together, grinning.
that's what you say you made, I believe you," my wife said. "Now start
on the junk around here. And don't you buy anymore. Okay?"
you are," I said and returned to my office, where I immediately went to
eBay and started auctions on a couple of Playboy Club ashtrays, a cracked BOAC
bamboo cup, a few Winged Foot Golf Club ball-mark repairers, an old Hewlett
Packard calculator, and two foil etchings by the late actor Lionel Barrymore,
none of which I happened to own before my visit to the Salvation Army store.
Then I sat back and waited, in no way suspecting that these early eBay
adventures would soon turn my life upside down, infinitesimalize my annual
income, nearly upset my marriage, cause my daughter to mutter in disgust,
foreshorten an afternoon lunch with beautiful actress Tori Spelling, saddle me
with a collection of 212 handheld battery-operated calculators from the 1970s,
and leave me holding up to a dark new day an unopened cardboard FedEx box from
circa 1995 that contained my grandmother's ashes, her final remains, all that
was left, with me wondering how much they might be worth to someone just then
logging on to eBay.
auctions are everywhere on the internet these days, and while many of them are
small and specific--for instance, those specializing in carousels (www.carousels.com)
and meteorites (www.naturalhistoryauction.com)--others feature such a variety of
junk that it probably could not all be contained within the state of Rhode
Island. The two newest of these big players are the auction sites at amazon.com
and yahoo.com. But they are pikers indeed compared with the hugest of them all:
eBay, which was the first auction site and to this day remains the best--if only
because, as financial analysts like to say, "it's got branded first-mover
advantage!" At this very moment, for instance, 2.4 million individual items
are up for auction on the site, in 1,627 individual categories, with about 8
million individuals dropping by on a monthly basis to have a look-see--and to
drop (just in the first quarter of this year) $541 million while there.
has made eBay one of the few Internet businesses actually able to turn a profit,
as it has done every year since summer's end 1995, when it first opened its
virtual doors. Investors, of course, find this fascinating, so when the company
went public in 1998, at a price of $18 a share, they quickly bid it up to an
astounding high of $702 a share (taking into account a stock split), making
millionaires out of a few lucky early investors--and billionaires of a few lucky
eBay insiders. A couple of furrowed-brow financial types thought this was
insanity, of course--a price-to-earnings ratio of 5,000! A price-to-sales ratio
of 700! A price-to-book ratio of 460! And even if you didn't have a clue what
those ratios really meant (who does? who cares?), it made sense to question how
a start-up company like eBay could justify a market value of more than $25
billion--10 percent bigger than Anheuser Busch! Twenty-five percent bigger than
eBay believers, however, these worrywarts simply didn't understand the true
beauty and significance of the eBay business model, in which all you need to
make gobs of money is a bunch of computers and some people manning them and then
some higher-ups to make management-type decisions. What's so great about this is
what's left out, which is inventory. EBay has none and needs none. Essentially,
all eBay is selling is an agreeable environment in which users can conduct
business among themselves, with their own inventory, in return for which they
pay their host per-item listing fees of between 25 cents and two dollars and
after-sale commissions that slide between 5 percent and 1.5 percent, depending
on final price. EBay's take may seem absurdly small--in the case of my Olivetti
typewriter, the final tally came to $6.36, or 2.72 percent of the $232.50
winning bid--but so many people are doing business on the site that gross sales
are expected to reach $2.7 billion this year, resulting in gross revenue of more
than $170 million. This has driven more than one stock analyst gaga. Writes the
fellow at BancBoston Robertson Stephens: "We believe the market opportunity
is monstrous, the business model is much more profitable than almost any other
on the Web, and the stock may reach unprecedented levels."
make this so, of course, eBay needs people to continue buying and selling like
crazy on its site. It needs lots of people to open their attics and empty out,
and lots of other people to open their attics and fill up. What kind of people
are these people that eBay needs? People like you, of course: sensible,
responsible people, tidy in mind and outlook, people with a few things to sell
or a few things they'd like to buy. But mostly what eBay needs are people who
aren't like that at all. It needs the opposite of those people. In other words,
what eBay really needs is a lot of people like me.
a while, it was all fun and games. during the week, I'd ply my regular trade and
then on weekends go out looking for crap at garage sales, flea markets, thrift
shops, and utter-junk stores. I got a box of 30 little plastic Marilyn Monroe
figures (all for three dollars); a box of 42 VW Rabbit key chains (all for five
dollars); 17 brand-spanking-new sets of Guiding Light Soap Opera Trivia
Challenge Playing Cards (all for five dollars); a couple of grimy Jim Beam shot
glasses (a dollar each); an old Pyrex coffeepot (part of a thrift shop's
four-dollars-a-loaded- bag sale); a bookmark featuring tanks from World War I
(free), an acid-eaten book entitled Rogers Erecting and Operating Machinery (25
cents); a couple of fractured transistor radios (a dollar each); a great big
goddamned stuffed California Raisin doll (five dollars); a Sterno stove (a
dollar); a couple of videotapes featuring TV-show bloopers (a dollar each). I'd
stagger home with armloads of this dusty, beer-smelling stuff and hustle it up
to my office before my wife could get a whiff of what was happening, then I'd go
out for more, always buying the cheapest junk I could find (nothing over five
dollars, most less than two) that still looked like it could inspire a bidding
war between two or more bozos of the republic. How much money could I make doing
this? I didn't know. But it seemed like a lot. And I aimed to find out.
was a knock at my door.
was my 15-year-old daughter.
doing? Can I come in?"
No. How about later?"
was another knock at the door.
I said irritably. "I'm busy. Go away. Later."
this time it wasn't my daughter; it was my wife. "What the hell are you
doing in there?" she said. "You're like some 16-year-old boy and every
five minutes you've got to go--"
no," I kind of shouted. "Busy on the computer. Business. Busy
footsteps receded down the hallway. I looked at the shut door and wished I could
smoke a cigarette. Only I'd stopped smoking. The last time I'd smoked (more or
less) was at a place called the Viper Room in Los Angeles.
swiveled around in my chair, yanked open a desk drawer, rummaged around, and
came out with exactly what I was looking for: a pair of Viper Room matchboxes
from my last visit. I lay them flat on the couch in my office and hovered over
them with my cool new Fisher digital camera, to take a couple of snapshots to
use in my auction write-up. Actually, it wasn't my new digital camera but my
daughter's, to whom I'd given it for Christmas a few weeks earlier, though Lord
knows she didn't want one, had no use for one, and upon unwrapping it guessed
immediately its true intended recipient. "Here you go, Dad. Thanks a whole
taken, I loaded them into my computer, then signed on to the Internet and called
up a program called AuctionAssistant, a $60 piece of software that lets you
automate the auction-write-up procedure and bypass eBay's own, rather more
laborious system. Then I bent my head to the job of creating my pitch.
matches come with these two matchbook boxes from the infamous Viper Room in Los
Angeles; instead, you get lots of cool! The joint is owned by actor Johnny Depp
(he of What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Edward Scissorhands and Ed "Bring on
the Angora!" Wood) and the place hops with all the cool L.A. cats. They go
there to drink and to hang low and, on the sad occasion, to OD and die outside
its doors. Well, enuf of that! These two boxes are in pretty good shape ...and
are a minty lime green in color...Fill 'em with matches, take a sip of absinthe,
and off you go, into the realm of the hanging-out, slitty-eyed pups.
"What?" it says on the side of the boxes. "What?" indeed!
could just see some Iowa rube buying these matchboxes to impress the livestock
at the local minimart. Instead, a week later, they sold to a woman named Nancy
who lived in Lincoln Park, Michigan, and who bought them for reasons I could
only guess at, like communing over them to get deep into the soul of the
mysterious, dark-eyed Depp. Why else would you spend seven bucks on a couple of
crummy matchboxes? Anyway, Nancy sent me a check and I sent here the goods, and
afterward both of us dutifully left feedback for the other in the feedback area.
The feedback area is where buyers and sellers leave post-sale comments--positive
or negative--about a transaction, and it's the main way buyers and sellers are
kept honest. It's where you make your reputation on eBay and where you go to
check out those with whom you might do business. And I loved reading my
club88lf: "A wonderful person to buy from, easy, quick, reliable. We are
1draftpick: "Quality seller! Super fast & well packaged fun
spanf: "Hits the spot! Just what I wanted and needed!!!"
about six weeks, I had a feedback file with more than 40 positives in it, and
snippets of all that positivity began to circulate in my brain, steady, warm,
and self-affirming: "...wonderful...reliable...happy...quality...well
that was the kind of person I thought I was. But I also had one negative in my
file, from some jackass named deyoii, who was the high bidder on an auction of
mine that closed a few days after I had to unexpectedly leave town. I appended a
note about my departure to the bottom of my auction, but deyoii couldn't be
bothered to have a look there after the auction ended. Instead, when he couldn't
reach me, he went to my feedback file and wrote: "Poor seller, hasn't
responded to emails, won't confirm sale." A person is allowed to respond to
feedback, so upon my return I did: "See bottom of auction, where on 4/8 I
say I will be out of town until 4/18." I also E-mailed deyoii, blasting him
for his various failures: "Your negative feedback on me was totally
unwarranted and you are a jerk for having posted it." His E-mail in
response was a brush-off, so I went to his feedback file and wrote:
"Impatient, sloppy & unapologetic buyer." To which he responded:
"We all fear these kind [sic] of sellers."
so it was that all my positives were sullied by that one stupid negative. And so
it was that on occasion that one negative also circulated in my head along with
all the positives, saying, "We all fear these kind...We all fear these
a while, I could not get enough of eBay. It was a wonderful world, and I sunk
into it completely. I loved getting up in the morning and seeing if anyone had
bid on one of my auctions, and I loved doing that in the middle of the night,
too. I loved hearing the clatter of mail dropping into my mailbox and finding it
full of money paying for goods that had cost me basically zilch. I didn't even
much mind the job of packing everything and taking it to the P.O., for that at
least got me out of the house and away from the computer. I was also learning a
few things, especially about modern America, its likes and dislikes. Take my
experience trying to sell some salt-and-pepper shakers that once belonged to Tom
and Roseanne Arnold.
there I was, a couple of years ago, standing outside Tom Arnold's great big
Beverly Hills house. He had a new girlfriend. He was divorcing Roseanne. And
right then, hitching up his pants in the garage, he was tossing out stuff he and
Roseanne had accumulated during their riotous albeit ill-fated (if not
ill-conceived) romance. Suddenly, into one trash can went these beautiful bone
and silver salt and pepper shakers...with a few cracks, a few splits, and some
chipping here and there--perhaps as a kind of reflection of the Tom and Roseanne
union itself! In any event, I watched in horror as Tom turned away from the
trash. "Hey, Tom," said I. "What're you doing--those things are
pretty neat." "You want 'em?" Tom snarled, his face darkening
with a flood of unpleasant Roseanne memories. "Take 'em. I don't give a
hoot." So I did. And now I offer them up.
get a single stinking bid on those things! Not one! America had turned its back
on Tom and Roseanne! And on Madonna as well--or at least as she compared to
learned this with that boxload of Marilyn Monroe figures I bought for three
dollars. I found them so stunning in appearance that they called forth from me
what I consider my finest bit of eBay blather:
3-1/2"-tall, immaculately conceived plastic Marilyn Monroe has a number of
things written on the base beneath her feet: "China,"
right--this creature is Disney licensed!--making it a truly wonderful
odd-coupling: sex goddess bombshell and the King of Clean, old Walt himself.
Weird, yes, to contemplate. But worthy, too. For in so contemplating you will
notice several things about this Marilyn: Firstly, her figure, so curvy in black
gown; then her decolletage (let's talk revealing, hey, Walt: vaa, vaa, vooom!).
And that head of flaxen, coiffed hair: just as we remember her, the locks
falling, as she sang to JFK that sweet-hot, loin-charged birthday lullaby.
then comes her face. Mark it well: the signature mole dot is there, punctuating.
But go deeper: to the expression. For with the mood on her face, the great
Chinese artists under Disney's employ have both outdone themselves and revealed
themselves to be the true sons of Walt, the pipe-smoking, mustachioed moralist.
She is sad; verging on tears. Wistful. Distraught. Clearly, she is paying some
price, suffering some consequence. Withal, then, looms a sense of the tragic, of
the doomed, in miniature and set in plastic.
is mind-boggling stuff. And you must hold it in your hands to believe it.
Indeed, if you are a Marilyn collector, then this is a must-have: a trinket,
that shall be allowed, but so much more!
coupled this prose with a few close-up pictures of the trinket itself and
thought I had a real winner on my hands. Which I did: In a shrieking blaze, what
had cost me a dime shot up to $17.
then someone E-mailed me some rotten news. This wasn't a plastic Marilyn figure.
It was a plastic Madonna figure, modeled on her Breathless Mahoney part in the
Dick Tracy movie. I slapped myself on the forehead, ended my auction early,
retooled the prose to feature Madonna, and put it back on the block. But as
Madonna, my little plastic figure couldn't draw more than a couple of measly
I said to my wife. "How do you like that."
she said. "Simply fascinating."
I said, sensing her lack of interest. "Why don't you get more involved in
this. You could be selling, too. You aren't working. You don't have a job. You
don't do anything. Why, you could make us an extra $1,000 a month with hardly
when my wife started shouting, about how she drove the kid hither and yon and
made breakfast, lunch, and dinner and tended to the garden and mopped the floors
and did the laundry and did I happen to notice the falling-down ceiling in the
living room and who was I to say she didn't work, didn't do anything, when all I
did was spend all day every day on eBay, and no longer lived in the real world,
and wasn't in bed at night when she needed me to be in bed, and wasn't making
the money I used to make as someone who could make $200 an hour with his real
job, which was now seeming more like his former job, and yes, she had been
poking around my office and had seen what was going on, and did I think I could
fool her, like I'm always trying to fool her with some moneymaking scheme, like
using that stupid FastTrack mutual-fund software I once so loved to make money
trading mutual funds, how much did I gamble away using that, and she's about had
it, I'm too selfish, a selfish bastard, really, and if I don't take care of some
things around here, she's going to find a handyman who can.
was a blistering screed that rocked me back on my heels.
daughter opened the door to her bedroom and peeked out at us.
she said to me with some force. "Look at all it's done for you."
she shut the door again, and my wife stomped away, and I was left with myself.
And so back to eBay I went.
began selling things for friends, taking a nearly usurious 60 percent cut of the
action for auctioning off their old stereo equipment, beaded purses, Ted
Williams autographed pix, neon signs, vintage Boy Scout hats, and whatnot.
Pretty soon, I'd sold over 100 items, and contrary to what my wife said, I still
worked my regular job, even though it was true eBay was almost always on my
mind. Flying Northwest Airlines to Iowa on business, for instance, it occurred
to me that I could probably auction off even a set of Northwest breakfast-time
cutlery. I grabbed a flight attendant and asked if the company kept tabs on its
knives and forks, because I was thinking of maybe taking some, and I didn't want
her to get in trouble. She pulled back a little. "Well, that's stealing,
isn't it?" she said. I said, "Maybe. But the airline must have so many
of them." She said, rather archly, "I guess I'll have to leave that to
you. I know I couldn't do it, whether the company counts the silverware or
not." And with the decision left to me, I did not sink to the level of
common thief. Of that I was proud. I was many things, but I was not a thief!
it happens, my grandparents were many things, too. For one, they were
millionaires who once lived in Iowa, and while there I drove by the storefront
in Des Moines where, as the state's first distributor of Ford tractors, my
grandfather started making his millions. Then I stopped by the house where my
grandmother spent most of her time assiduously trying to spend those millions.
was a great big house that had a horse fence around it and sat on a little
promontory. It had once, during my grandmother's tenure, been featured in a lush
Better Homes and Gardens photo spread. At the time, its garage sheltered the
splashiest car in all of Des Moines, a yellow four-door Lincoln Continental
convertible. Yellow! What a rich, grand life they had led, and it was only
compounded when my grandfather rose to the position of assistant secretary of
defense under Eisenhower. My parents had married by then, but they soon
divorced, my father moving back home to Denmark--where he married the Danish
prime minister's daughter, had three beautiful kids, and made a ton of dough in
the reinsurance racket--while my mother (with whom I stayed) briefly dated a
Rhode Island Mafia-type racketeer, then settled down with a spineless, bearded,
love-bead-wearing music teacher, which so infuriated my grandmother that she
would often haul her skinny Cadillac-driven bones onto our front porch and start
shrieking at the top of her lungs.
will get nothing! That man is nothing but a dirty beatnik! Do you understand me?
Who do you think bought you that house? You will get nothing more from me! You
are out of the will. Cut! Out!"
time, then, my grandfather died, my mother died, and my grandmother died, each
of them leaving me whatever crap they thought I would like, my grandmother's
crap festooned with fluttering little white tags upon which she had written her
deeply inflated sense of a thing's value.
stood out there in Des Moines, looking at the house and wondering about my
family and the meaning of money and things. I finally decided that they were all
terrible and destructive, and I soon felt a little better about having lived a
life marked by nothing so much as a constant state of downward mobility in which
my chances of ever doing better than an assistant secretary of defense had grown
increasingly slim. I continued to stand out there as the wind came up, bringing
with it snow and a chill that quickly seeped through the holes in my old Jack
Purcell sneakers. I looked down at them. They were entirely pathetic. I was sure
my grandfather had never worn a pair of Jack Purcells in his entire life. I have
two memories of him. One revolved around a small cocktail party into the middle
of which ten-year-old me toddled, whereupon suddenly, inadvertently, my penis
sprung free of my pajamas and into view, the jaws of a few guests dropped, my
grandfather slapped me silly, and later on the family gathered to discuss the
advisability of sending me away to military school. The other is of him sitting
on the back patio of his retirement villa in Sun City, Arizona, sipping lemonade
through a silver Mexican-made straw, his legs crossed, on his feet a happy,
dancing pair of brand- new black wing tips. The bastard. I'd sure like to kick
his Eisenhower-loving candy ass a mile or two.
knows why a person rambles into these kinds of thoughts? I surely didn't, but
they disturbed me, and I left Iowa as soon as I could.
worry about doing business on eBay. They worry about sending checks to
strangers, about not getting what they paid for in return. My feeling is, go to
the feedback file area, check things out, deal only with people who have a nice
fat number of positives (like me, fish8!), and don't worry. According to eBay,
fraud plays a part in only 0.03 percent of all transactions. I believe it. I've
never had a problem. It's not a big deal.
also worry about eBay itself. In many official eBay notices, eBay likes to refer
to itself as a community, a home, a warm, friendly place where all can gather
for a few hours each day, if not to buy or sell, then at least to chat in one of
its numerous eBay-related chat rooms. And so it has become: According to Media
Metrix, each month eBay racks up 896 million total user minutes, a number that
in all of Internetdom is second only to Yahoo's. But does management really
believe in community, or does it believe in community only as a marketing ploy,
as a way to increase profits and thus fatten its own paycheck? Many people think
eBay's top brass couldn't care less about its customers and cite as evidence
what happens when eBay's computers go down, screwing up everybody's auctions.
What happens is, they don't come right back up. They stay down. Why? Because
eBay has thrown more money into management's wallets than into sorely needed
redundant computer systems!
don't often hear these complaints inside eBay's own official chat rooms, as eBay
takes a dim view of anyone who criticizes the company and sometimes will
retaliate by banning the offender from using the service. So the place where the
grousers go is www.auctionwatch.com, and there they complain in full, loudly and
often. For instance, following eBay's great, extended, system-wide failure in
early June, which prompted a stock-price slide of nearly 26 percent in two days'
time, the message posters went wild with anger and began posting messages with
headlines like: "eBay Lies????," "Time for Ship to Have New
Captain," "Time for a Class Action Lawsuit????," "You don't
agree with me? Then I hate you," and "eBay: Shut Down and Don't Come
Back Until Everything Works."
one point, I decided to have a little talk about this kind of anger with eBay
founder and president Pierre Omidyar. He seemed like he might be an okay guy, if
only because he gives credit for the idea behind eBay where credit is due--not
to himself but to his girlfriend, who one time over dinner said to him,
"Wouldn't it be great to be able to collect Pez dispensers and interact
with other collectors over the Internet?" A fanciful notion that soon
became a reality. So I called the eBay corporate communications office and
relayed my request to a woman named Jennifer Chu, who subsequently proved
herself as unreliable and feckless as eBay's computers sometimes are. She said
she'd call me back, then didn't. I began leaving messages, fruitlessly. I
occasionally got her on the phone for a second, but then she begged off, saying
she'd call me right back, which she never did. The last time I got a word in
edgewise, she said, "He's very busy. He won't be able to talk to you for a
month. A month is okay? Well, he's very busy and it may be longer than that. How
much longer? A lot longer!" I could see what she was driving at, so I
slammed down the phone on Miss Too Important for You Chu, not exactly overjoyed
with the eBay brass myself.
my anger didn't last long. For by this time I was not only an eBay seller but
also an eBay buyer, and I needed to get into bid mode.
I was buying were calculators. Not the ugly, modern ones with the gray LCD
screens but older ones from the 1970s, with glowing, mostly red LED screens,
like the screen on the Hewlett Packard I'd bought early on at the Salvation Army
and sold and immediately regretted selling. Why they spoke to me, I do not know.
But they did, and I'd started buying them like crazy. And there were lots to buy
on eBay, with company names like Rockwell, Bowmar, Craig, Omron, Unitrex,
Unisonic, Texas Instruments, Sperry Remington Rand, and more. One day, I had a
telephone chat with Guy Ball, a fellow eBay nut and co-author of The Complete
Collector's Guide to Pocket Calculators, and he told me that during the golden
age of calculators over 220 manufacturers were making over 1,500 models. I let
out a long, low whistle, for I'd decided I wanted to become a player among
calculator collectors, and that would mean I'd have to buy one helluva lot of
them. So I got started and began winning auctions the way most people win
auctions. After one such win, I pushed open my daughter's bedroom door to tell
her all about it.
you knock?" she said.
was almost open," I said.
wasn't almost open. It was almost shut." She paused. "What do you
just got in an eBay bidding war on a calculator. Won. But paid more than I
wanted. A lot more. But I won. Whew!" I said, sort of wiping my brow.
looked at me blankly, as she so often does. My win held no interest for her. But
then she tilted her head and squinted her eyes.
huh?" she said.
ones from the '70s that glow," I said.
have enough stupid hobbies that cost us money without adding one more. Fishing.
Radio-control gliders. Now it's calculators?"
a life without hobbies?" I said nervously.
better, richer, more productive life," she said, and I backed out of her
room, not wanting to disturb her any more than I already had.
bought a few things to make my ebay life a little more comfy. One of them was a
software program called the Oracle. Into it you plug the eBay ID numbers of
everything you're selling and everything you might want to buy, and it then
keeps track of them for you with a long list featuring the item number, the item
description, the current bid, the high bid, the seller's name, the high bidder's
name, the date the auction ends, and the time it ends. It's all there for you.
But to me, neat as that was, it wasn't the Oracle's true appeal. Because, among
many other things, the Oracle can also automatically update itself, can on its
own contact eBay and see if any prices have taken a leap. And if they have, the
program utters the most wonderful sound: a cha-ching. The universal noise of the
cash register. Cha-ching!
I came to love that sound! Many were the days, now marching from late winter to
mid-spring, that I sat in my office, computer on, the Oracle up and running, my
back to the screen, just lounging there, staring at the ceiling--and then, cha-ching!
shivered with happiness.
when I left my office very early in the morning, I would crawl into bed next to
my wife and watch the lights dancing behind my eyelids. I knew the Oracle's
schedule of updates, and my heart's beat tightened the nearer the next update
Hey, what's that!" my daughter sometimes shouted from her sleep.
you turn that goddamned thing off?" my wife sometimes muttered from her
didn't say a thing, though a soft moan escaped my lips.
just loved that sound!
stuff on eBay: a crappy Pan Am key chain, a Jim Beam shot glass, a guitar-shaped
nail clipper, an old broken Minox 35mm camera, some weird books by the weird art
photographer Joel-Peter Witkin, a Duncan top, two plastic Wonder Woman figures,
two books on the history of the American freak show, a Shirley Temple pin, a
diary, a Mickey Mouse calculator, a Playboy Bunny stickpin, a battered leather
case, a Nikko power amp and synthesizer, a stereo equalizer, a couple of Eastern
Airlines glasses, an old radio, a pack of soap-opera trivia cards, a watch, a
golf-ball-mark repairer, a Mercedes Benz key chain, a Mad Magazine card game, a
Volvo key chain.
cost of stuff to fish8: $39.05.
number of people viewing fish8's stuff so far: 1,464.
current bid value of fish8's stuff: $605.72.
hours went by when all I did was stare at my computer.
in the late afternoon, my wife pushed her way into the room. "Look at all
this crap," she said, frowning. "And it's not even the crap you are
supposed to be selling."
well," I said, standing up and moving so she couldn't get a good look at my
bookshelves. Over the past few months, I'd picked up a number of books,
including How to Make Ea$y Money in Antique$ Without Even Half-Way Trying;
Antique Secrets; Flea: The Definitive Guide to Hunting, Gathering, and Flaunting
Superior Vintage Wares; and Backyard Treasure Hunting--none of which had taught
me much. But a new one had arrived in today's mail, and I was sure it would be
the book to lead me to numerous sellable items that wouldn't cost me a cent and
would pay off in truly remarkable eBay profits.
nudged me aside and cast her gaze on the lineup.
the hell is this?" she said, picking up the new book.
both looked at the title--The Art & Science of Dumpster Diving, by one John
Hoffman--and I groaned, knowing that the shouting would soon start.
it didn't, not for a bit. For she had seen something else that interested her.
She was looking at my couch, on which I'd shone a couple of lights and in the
middle of which was one of my plastic Madonnas lying on its back, with a little
plastic baby I'd bought nuzzled facedown on one of her bosoms.
the hell is that?"
do you think it is? It's Lourdes, Madonna's child."
tell you what I think," she said harshly.
before she could, I broke in with a more complete explanation. "In some of
my auctions and where circumstances warrant," I said, "I'm moving
somewhat in the direction of artistic statement. You take Madonna there, with
Lourdes suckling. Here's what that really is: plastic Madonna and child. Get
it?! So, even if it doesn't sell, for seven days, the length of an auction, I'm
able to say something about a singer who I think is plastic as hell and as a
result has produced a child who is also plastic. It's art, okay? And I've got a
theoretical audience of eight million!"
sick," my wife snarled, "and you're sick. You're going over the edge
with this. You're losing it. I'm serious."
out!" I shouted. "Get out!"
no idiot. I knew she was right. But I didn't care. It didn't seem important to
me. What was important to me was the peace I felt when I was inside eBay, inside
a new world of mercantilism. I was somebody there, a presence, a force in a
community where people actually stepped forward and said good things about me:
packaged...fun...wanted...needed..." It didn't matter what I was in the
outside world. In the eBay world, I was at least an assistant secretary of
defense, if not a whole lot more.
I was beginning to view myself as a kind of eBay genius, and I had plenty of
evidence to back up my opinion. One time, for instance, my nephew-in-law Steve
S. and I stopped by a watch store, where we happened to see, and to buy, a
couple of old-looking, cool-seeming digital watches, $20 each. Steve S., a New
York State employee, which about says it all, posted his watch on eBay with a
very plain description: Le Courier digital watch, made in the 1960s, good shape,
and so on. Sold the thing for $43.
myself let the genius out of the bottle once again.
sometime in the 1960s, this vintage Le Courier digital watch has never seen a
day's worth of use--not a single day's worth in the past 30+ years. As a result,
it ought to keep pretty perfect time. It is in pristine condition, showing only
the slightest, nearly invisible signs of wear from sitting so long in a dealer's
showcase as the LED watch revolution swept in and obscured its own humdinger,
very mod, quite Shagadelic technology...What more can I say? This Le Courier is
a space-age beauty and will attract admiring commentary no matter where you go
or who you see (or who you are seen with). It's groovy--and destined only to get
groovier with the passage of time! Winning bidder to pay $3.20 USPS
priority-mail shipping. There is no price-gouging "handling" fee.
am I right? And someone bid the darn thing up to $152.50!
I was good. I was at the top of my game. A winner!
one day, I happened to be having lunch in Santa Monica, California, with Tori
Spelling, a star of the Beverly Hills 90210 television series and the daughter
of TV-show producer Aaron Spelling, as well as quite a looker and a delightful
conversationalist. After a while, she let it be known that both she and her mom,
Candy, collect Beanie Babies--and that they had bought just tons of them on
tell," I said, leaning forward.
became obsessed with them, like addicted to them," Tori said. "It got
to the point where I had so many of them they didn't have any new ones. At work,
I'd bring my laptop, and when I wasn't on the set, I'd be in my room, and when
they came for me, I'd be, 'Like wait five more minutes! I'm in an auction right
now! I'm bidding on a Beanie Baby!' And the cast would make fun of me. Jason
Priestly would say, 'Uhhh, say--did you get another Beanie Baby for like 200
bucks?' Like, I'm a sucker."
nodded in deep sympathy.
chuckled. "And then when I bought things, I'd get E-mail asking, 'Are you
the Tori Spelling?' I'm thinking, Oh, shit! And then my mom says, 'See, that's
why I have an alias and use cashier's checks only.'"
didn't have that problem, of course, but I nonetheless felt the stirrings of a
connection with Tori, based on our mutual love of eBay. There were possibilities
here, I thought, especially since after lunch we were supposed to go across the
street to a craft-making shop and spend a few more hours together, making
crafts. And who knew where that might lead? These were warm, pleasant thoughts.
At the same time, however, I'd recently met a fellow in L.A. named George who
wanted to introduce me to a fellow named Roger, who happened to have 150
calculators he wanted to sell. And I was supposed to see him in just a few
peered into Tori's eyes, weighing the moment.
we go across the street?" she said, pressing napkin to cupid-shaped lips.
well, I think we're done here, aren't we?" I said. "I mean, I think
that about does it!"
she said, eyes drifting down. "And we would have had such fun!"
felt like I'd blown an unbelievable opportunity. And for what? Calculators! What
kind of person would do that? What kind of nut? It was perplexing to me. All I
knew was that I needed those calculators, that I very much wanted to be a player
in the calculator-collector world, and that I really did need to get them from
Roger at a very good price, since only then could I start auctioning off the
lesser ones on eBay, create a fine reputation for myself there as a calculator
know-it-all, and simultaneously make my new hobby a self-sufficient one.
weeks later, on June 14, 1999, three big boxes arrived at my house. The
calculators. I heard the UPS man pulling up and knew what he was delivering. My
wife was upstairs. I ran outside and told the UPS man to take the boxes to the
side of the house and hide them in the bushes.
wife," I said, "doesn't like strange packages."
looked at me like I was a little strange but shrugged and dumped the things in a
hedgerow. Finally, my wife went to the grocery store, and I was able to get the
boxes inside. I was drooling like a baby. I'd wildly overpaid--overpaid by a
huge amount--but I didn't care. All it took was for me to see those calculators,
beautiful objects (and if you have any you want to sell, feel free to E-mail me
at email@example.com), and I paid pretty much what Roger wanted. I felt terrible
about having to hide the things from my wife and daughter, or at least I would
feel terrible if I got caught hiding them. But I was falling, falling into a
deep hole. Everything I'd made so far on eBay I'd just spent on calculators. I
can't say the amount. It's too horrible. Plus, Roger had 150 more calculators in
a storage locker that I could buy next time I was in L.A. I needed money. More
so that's how I came to be an ebay seller, then an eBay buyer, and finally an
eBay addict. That's how I think of eBay now, quite literally as an addictive
substance as bad as tobacco or booze. It feels good, but it's bad. You start on
it, thinking maybe you can clear your house of all its accumulated ancestral
crap, then all of a sudden you're hooked; you never do accomplish your original
goal; eventually, you make a single mistake like my calculator-buying mistake,
and you feel like you can never escape. And really you don't want to. It's got
you. It possesses you. It messes with your finances, your marriage, and your
kid's happiness. And it messes with your head. And it's such a new drug that
very few people are talking about how dangerous it can be. One time on
auctionwatch.com, a member named Leebot wrote about the problems eBay was
causing him: "I am losing my job because of it....I don't smoke, drink,
gamble [or take drugs]. But all the symptoms are there: compulsive viewing of
pages, self-loathing, a desire to stop and an inability to stop....Don't get me
wrong. I think eBay is great and I want to be able to use it, but I have to
achieve a much better balance." I responded to Leebot, telling of my own
troubles. But pretty soon, I went on a buying-and-selling bender and forget all
about him. More recently, I surfaced to have a look at a New Yorker magazine
piece on eBay, hoping that it would be both amusing and profound or insightful
and that it might go the distance and wander into the land of eBay addiction;
instead, it was a half-amusing, entirely vapid story and a waste of paper. I
tossed the magazine into a corner.
am a junkie, and like a junkie I crept downstairs. I opened a drawer and took
out the FedEx box containing my dead grandmother's ashes. She'd passed over in
1995, and why I had not yet floated the ashes on the wind I couldn't say. Maybe
all these years I'd somehow known I would someday find a better use for them. I
thought of what I might write.
don't need these but you may. It's a box of human ashes (my grandmother's, in
fact) in mint, A1 condition, just as they came out of the crematory. You've seen
none better! Weight: four lbs. Comes in small cardboard mailing box that's
unopened and as sweet as the ashes: no rips, no tears, no flaws. Still features
certified mail tag and original mailing label that reads (in part): "From:
Rapp Funeral Services, P.A....human cremains handle with care." Wow! So if
you're looking around for something like this, then this is definitely the thing
you are looking around for! Buyer pays actual shipping costs only. There is no
crummy "handling" fee. Good luck. And good bidding!
stood there, nodding to myself and wondering whether early summer was the best
time to sell ashes. Maybe, I thought, I should wait for winter, when more people
are stuck inside and sitting at their computers. I shook the box, and my
grandmother's ashes made a grainy, shifting sound. I squinted my eyes, pondering
this matter, as well as what kind of trouble I could get in auctioning off human
remains. Maybe the cops would come--that would be bad. Maybe eBay would ban
me--that would be worse. I decided to wait for winter. That would give me time
to sort out the issues at hand. I was in no hurry. My grandmother wasn't going
anywhere. I could come back for her then.
Erik Hedegaard has written for Worth on topics ranging from investment software to his own trading anxieties to the Motley Fools. His most recent feature, "My Y2K Problem," appeared in the December/January 1999 issue.