Collecting vintage computers can be fun. I also personally think it’s great that people are interested in preserving that history. Where to buy vintage computers hasn’t changed much over the years. It just may take a bit more work than it used to.
Some people think old computers are priceless. Others think they’re worthless. I don’t recommend wasting your time with people who think a Dell Pentium III laptop is worth $300. Think of the times you found a jewel for five bucks and keep moving.
Every city is a bit different, so I’ll offer some general advice. I recommend you try all of these things, and keep notes about what works for you and why. The reason I say this is because after months or years of looking, patterns may emerge. That pattern, when you find it, frequently is the key to greater success finding vintage computers. Or anything else you might look for.
Thrift stores often don’t know what to do with old computers. Value Village is one example of a chain thrift store that often does sell vintage computers when they get them, however. You may find anything from a decade-old PC to a 1980s home computer at a thrift store. It’s certainly worth paying your local thrift stores a visit a couple of times to get an idea of what they get and how they price it. Look both in the electronics section and in the glass case by the registers.
Be sure to look in the books and music as well. You may find interesting old software there. Most of the old computer books are junk, but you may find one that interests you too. Also look through the housewares aisle. You can find some nice vintage disk files and other random accessories to complete a setup. And thrift stores are a very good place to score vintage computer desks.
You won’t find vintage computers at every garage sale. That said, there are plenty still out there to find. Sometimes people will mention an old computer in an ad, and sometimes not.
If you have time, and the people running the sale aren’t crazy busy, it never hurts to ask if they have any old computer gear they want to get rid of. Be ready to elaborate on what you mean by old. To some people, “old” means a nondescript PC with a second-generation Intel i3 chip in it. To others it means a Commodore VIC-20. But since people holding garage sales are in get-rid-of-it mode, asking the question can be productive. Many people have no idea there are people interested in vintage computer gear. And if you see some computer gear but it’s not quite what you’re looking for, it may not hurt to ask if they have anything else. They may have something they were planning to recycle because they figured nobody would want it.
I don’t necessarily recommend garage sales as a primary source, but hitting the garage sales near your favorite thrift stores or flea markets, or near an estate sale, is definitely productive. And if the ad mentions a specific vintage computer, go.
When you can’t buy from the original owner, you may be able to buy from the original owner’s estate. Old computers frequently turn up at estate sales. Some estate sale companies realize certain computers can be collectible. Others still don’t really know what to do with them.
Old computers can turn up anywhere. It pays to look around, especially in the basement and the garage. I’ve spotted CGA monitors in garages and 30-year-old computer boxes in basements, with no trace of the system they went with. I’ve also seen complete systems in an office, either under the desk or even still set up. Another time, I found a Tandy Color Computer in a closet in the master bedroom. You may find anything between.
When you find a prize, tag it and ask them to hold it. I’ve missed things because I wasn’t quite diligent. Once you secure your purchase, then look around some more. You may very well find related paraphernalia in the basement or garage that the seller didn’t know what to do with.
Sometimes all you’ll find are a few cables and a box of disks. But if you live in or near a major city, on any given Saturday if you hit a few sales, odds are you’re going to find something.
There are exceptions, but more often than not, the computer is going to be newer than the house. So don’t expect to find 1980s computers at an estate sale in a subdivision built in the 1990s. And you’ll find more computers in the wealthy parts of town than the poor parts. Even a Commodore was expensive after you adjust for inflation.
If you find a computer at an estate sale run by a specific company, pay attention to that company’s future ads. Estate sale companies tend to run sales for peer groups.
Many schools and churches have rummage sales from time to time. Some aren’t worthwhile, but the annual events that socially active organizations put together tend to yield good finds. Attend a few, take notes, and talk to the attendees and you’ll start to get an idea of which ones are worthwhile. My best rummage sale find was a complete IBM PCjr setup, including a pile of software for it. I still regret not buying that.
Even when you don’t find a computer, though, take a look at the books and CDs. Frequently you can find vintage manuals and/or software mixed in over there, and you probably won’t pay much for them.
Friends and coworkers
I know of some people who built unbelievable collections of vintage trains by telling literally everyone they met that they collect trains. I think that’s obnoxious. But there’s certainly nothing wrong with asking someone who works in your IT department if they know anything about collecting vintage computers. If you’re shy, keep something like a Commodore 1541 on a shelf in your cubicle as a conversation piece. Someone will ask about it and word will get around that you like old computer gear. As people find stuff, they’ll talk to you about it rather than throwing it out.
Even when working virtually, this is an option. It’s not hard to hang a vintage system or two on the wall. If nothing else, it can lead to a good conversation after a video call. I’ve had lots of people tell me about their first computer after seeing something similar on my wall behind me. It’s fun to hear those stories. It gives more insight into the machines, the time period, and the people who used them.
It doesn’t hurt to find out who the computer recyclers are in your area and pay them a visit. Anymore, electronics recyclers are one of the best places to buy vintage computers. They’re just as happy selling vintage gear to you as they are trying to sell it online. It’s likely that most recyclers have some idea what they have, but no one knows everything so you can still score some bargains.
It’s also pretty common for churches and Boy Scout groups to have recycling events on the weekends. It never hurts to talk to the people in charge of the event and ask if they’d be willing to sell you anything interesting if it comes in. They’re generally holding the events to raise money, so if they can sell it to you for more than a scrapper will give them, it’s worth their while.
You never know what you’ll find at a flea market, and chances are you’ll have to dig. But I used to find vintage computer gear at flea markets all the time. The trickier part is finding a flea market to hunt at, at least for me. Columbia, Missouri, where I went to college, had a couple when I was there. The bigger of the two is still in business. There’s a huge one in Kansas City, in a monster old Montgomery Ward store/distribution center. But true flea markets are scarce in St. Louis. In St. Louis, what you’re more likely to find are one-weekend flea markets in school parking lots that run once a year, something closer to what they call boot sales in the UK.
Antique malls are glorified, upscale flea markets. Most of what’s there isn’t antique. Some antique malls don’t allow anything electronic, but many do. Sometimes I find a booth full of 1980s game machines and computers. Sometimes all I find is a few PS1 or PS2 titles mixed in with boy band CDs and chick-flick DVDs.
But it’s the occasional gem that keeps me coming back. It also helps to be interested in more than one thing. As you might gather from reading elsewhere on this blog, I’m also into vintage electric trains. If I go in looking for one and come out with the other, it wasn’t a waste of time.
Most of the chains won’t deal in vintage computers per se, but many indie game stores will. They don’t specialize in it, but won’t turn it away if it comes in the door. Pay your indie game stores a visit, and if they aren’t too busy, spend a few minutes talking with the owner about what comes in and what you like.
If a store regularly has stuff you like, by all means patronize it. You want that store to be there for years to come. Symbiotic relationships are always a good thing.
Craigslist is very hit and miss and it’s getting harder to find a bargain there. That said, vintage computers turn up on Craigslist rather regularly. Just like with garage sales, if you’re buying something, it doesn’t hurt to ask if they have anything else like it. I once paid a guy a visit thinking I’d be buying one system and ended up filling up my car with vintage stuff. It was a good day for me and for him. I got lots of stuff and he got a lot more room in his basement.
If you’re willing to pay the going rate, you can find what you’re looking for on Ebay. Even if it’s rare, it will eventually turn up.
Sometimes hobbyists will organize shows. They may be local and nonspecific, or they may be somewhere distant and specific to a certain make. These events can be a good place to trade the items you’re less interested in for things that interest you more.
Trading with other collectors
Trading with other collectors is also productive. Maybe you like 8-bits and your buddy likes vintage PCs. Trading helps keep both of you productive and happy. Having at least one collecting buddy also helps in the event of something happening to you. Then your survivors can more easily dispense with your collection and hopefully not get taken advantage of too badly.
If you’re interested in vintage computing as a hobby, here are more tips about that from a hobby standpoint.