I see a lot of people asking how to collect vintage computers, perhaps frustrated they aren’t able to replicate other people’s results. Collecting retro computers isn’t dead, but it’s changing. As hobbyists adapt, collecting will continue.
Finding vintage computers
Finding vintage computers themselves isn’t as easy as it once was, but my advice still stands. It’s frustrating spending a Saturday out and about, finding very little, then seeing someone post on a computer discussion group how they filled a van with vintage gear that day.
The thing is, those deals are relatively rare. They happen to me about once in a decade. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s easy enough as it is to end up with more stuff than we have room to display. But I get it if you’re still trying to buy your first vintage computer. You wish you had my problem.
Patience is the key. Try the various venues I recommend above. Look around on social media for a group local to you who collects vintage computers and/or game systems. Join those groups even if they aren’t an exact fit for what you want to do. Old computers turn up in exactly the same places as old game systems. You may find some locals who are willing to share some tips that work specifically in your area. You may also find some locals who are willing to sell or trade spare gear they aren’t using. That’s how I got my VIC-20.
I think estate sales are the best venue these days. If you’re striking out at sales, be sure to examine any computer desk you find. The old computer may or may not be there, but you may find disks or cables, and they’ll be cheap. The computer itself may be somewhere in the garage or basement. In the past, you had to drive around from store to store looking for gear. Today you can browse estate sale ads a day or two before, scour the ads for signs of vintage computers. and make a list of sales to visit. In that regard, it may be easier to collect vintage computers than it was in the past. But it is different.
Things to buy when you can’t find vintage computers
Even though vintage computers rarely turn up in thrift stores where they used to be super common, other vintage gear does still turn up. Don’t just look in the electronics section, even though that’s the most common place for stuff to turn up. Look in the housewares section, too. Even if I can’t find anything else, frequently I can find disk files. It’s been 20 years since I could buy 5.25-inch disk files at retail, but one thrift store near me seems to get them pretty reliably, and they usually charge $2-$5 for them.
Another common thing I find in thrift stores are power centers. These sit under a monitor and let you plug a computer and its peripherals in the back, providing separate on/off switches for everything in one place. This is convenient. It lets you cut off power to everything with one switch, which is always a good idea since some capacitors stay live even if the computer is off. It also saves wear and tear on the built-in power switches. I’d rather wear out a $5 power center than a C-64 power switch.
Also look around at the keyboards and mice. Sometimes interesting old keyboards turn up. If it’s beige, it deserves a look.
Look in the books and media section for interesting old software, and interesting old computer books. Computer software frequently can get mixed up with those. For that matter, 8-bit cartridges can get mixed up with cassette tapes.
Book sales, of all places
Another potential gold mine for this kind of stuff is book sales. Imagine a high school gymnasium, or better yet, a YMCA, full of table after table of books. These sales typically happen once a year and can be sponsored by a public library or any number of other non-profits. The main attraction is the books, and you can imagine huge crowds, some of which will be resellers. They can happen any time of the year, but I find the biggest ones tend to happen in April or May.
But these venues often get a good amount of computer books and computer software. The computer books will be in their own section, usually, and there will be a mix of recent books and vintage books.
Software may be in its own section, or it may be mixed in with CDs and DVDs. It will probably be cheap, and there probably won’t be very many other people looking at it.
One thing that can help is tracking your finds as you go out. You don’t have to go into a great amount of detail, but I’ve found sometimes our perception of where we find things doesn’t always match reality. I’ll track the date, where I went, how much I spent and how many items I bought. You might also consider recording how many items were interesting but you didn’t buy.
What I found was that when I had a year’s worth of data, some places I was going that seemed like a waste of time actually were pretty reliable.
If nothing else, when deciding when to go out, if you can’t make up your mind where to go first, or which one to skip, at least you can use data to make your decision. It’s better than flipping a coin.
One more thing that warrants discussion: Keep your collection organized. The earlier you start, the easier it will be for you. Then you can find spare parts and other things you need to complete items in your collection when you need them.
And since I more frequently regret not buying something than I regret buying it, I know you may be the same way. Here’s a tip I learned from the guy who introduced me to collecting vintage computers. He kept a storage chest by his bed. Any time he bought something and decided not to keep it, he put it in the chest. When the chest was full, he sold its contents. This helped him keep from accumulating too much, and provided funds when he wanted to purchase something he couldn’t find cheap local to him.
If you can stay disciplined about selling the items you find but don’t really want, this can make the hobby easier by providing funds so you can buy machines from someone else who’s tested and verified everything works.