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The Card wasn’t real!

Somehow I missed this a couple of weeks ago, but the former owner of the most valuable baseball card ever, a 1909 tobacco card picturing Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame shortstop Honus Wagner, admitted to altering it sometime before he sold it. This card, sometimes called The Card, was owned by hockey great Wayne Gretzky for a time in the 1990s, so The Card is sometimes also called the Gretzky Wagner.

The story of the T206–T206 being the designation that the founder of baseball card collecting, Jefferson Burdick, assigned to that particular set–Wagner is shrouded in mystery anyway, and the Gretzky Wagner, even more so. The Gretzky Wagner was even the subject of a book published in 2008, appropriately titled The Card.Read More »The Card wasn’t real!

Value Village and Affton could be very good for one another

There’s a Value Village thrift store in Shrewsbury that’s being displaced because the plaza it’s in–the same place I used to go to buy Commodore gear–is going to be demolished to make way for a Wal-Mart Supercenter. Whether Shrewsbury needs a Wal-Mart Supercenter when there’s one six miles away is another question for another day.

Value Village needs someplace to go, and Affton has an available retail space that’s been empty since the hardware store previously occupying it went out of business more than a year ago. County councilman Steve Stenger (D-Affton) wants to block the move, essentially saying that Affton is too good for a place like Value Village.Read More »Value Village and Affton could be very good for one another

Lake Forest Pastry Shop, and other old St. Louis bakeries

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a story this week about vintage baking. It profiled Chris Leuther, an area baker with 30 years in the business who collects old bakery equipment and recipes from long-gone, but beloved and not-forgotten bakeries such as Lake Forest Pastry Shop.

The money quote: “I’ve worked in a lot of bakeries and talked to a lot of bakers, and when it comes right down to it, so many of these places worked from almost exactly the same formula… A lot of times different places made exactly the same cake. It seemed special because it made a special memory — but that’s all it is, a memory.”

Read More »Lake Forest Pastry Shop, and other old St. Louis bakeries

Greenberg’s Marx Trains Pocket Price Guide, 9th edition: A review

I received my copy of the new 9th edition of the Greenberg Pocket Price Guide for Marx trains this past weekend. Marx used to print on its packages, “One of the many Marx toys. Have you all of them?” This book won’t completely answer that question, but at the very least, it gives you a start, and helps you avoid paying too much for the ones you don’t have yet.

Read More »Greenberg’s Marx Trains Pocket Price Guide, 9th edition: A review

Advice on scraping by

Here’s a good, timely Google search query: scraping by advice.

I looked, and I’ve never written anything that matched that query well. I know a lot of people are hurting right now. I’ve been in some tight spots and I’ve gotten out of some, so let’s talk about what I would do, on a really practical level, if I ran into another tight spot next week.

Read More »Advice on scraping by

Thrift-store PCs

In the comments of a recent post I did, reader Glaurung Quena brought up a good topic: secondhand PCs, acquired cheaply, strictly as rebuild fodder.

I like the idea, of course, because I’ve been doing it for years. In the 1990s I built a lot of 486s and Pentiums into former IBM PC/ATs, basically until all the board makers relocated the memory slots into a position that wasn’t clear on the original PC/AT due to a beam that supported its drive bays. And of course the adoption of ATX and MicroATX killed that, at least for a while.

But now ATX has been around as long as the old AT architecture had been when ATX came along, and efforts to replace ATX haven’t been successful. So that trick makes more sense again. Buy a secondhand machine cheaply, intending to re-use the case, and regard anything else inside that happens to be reusable strictly as a bonus.Read More »Thrift-store PCs

Cleaning and storing Lionel track

Cleaning and storing Lionel track is another common question when the subject of trains comes up. Now that you’re getting the electric train track out for Christmas duty, there are some things you need to do to get it ready. And when the time comes to put it away until next year, a little preparation then will leave it in better shape for next year.

First, a note: Since writing this piece, I discovered a miracle. I treated my track with a conductivity enhancer, and the difference is unbelievable. I haven’t needed to clean my track in two years.

Read More »Cleaning and storing Lionel track

How to go bankrupt and/or lose your house

I have a Saturday ritual. On Saturday mornings, about 49 times a year, I go to estate sales. On numerous occasions, I’ve been to estate sales of millionaires who, for one reason or another, were downsizing.

And on Saturday afternoons, I’ve been known to go look at foreclosure houses. Or, now that my wife and I have bought one, working on the foreclosure house.

I see a pattern.It’s unusual for the last owner of a foreclosure house to be in the house for very long. And almost invariably, I see a lot of home improvement projects. Often there’s at least one unfinished project still sitting there.

Often the projects are pointless–tearing out plaster walls to put in drywall, only because that’s what the stupid shows on HGTV say you should do.

But it’s always pretty clear from looking at the house and the information available in public records what happened. They bought the house, they made some payments, the house increased in value during the real estate boom, they took out a home equity loan and started changing things, then eventually they got in over their head.

Often the changes weren’t worth it. They’d start out with a $60,000 house in a questionable neighborhood, sink tens of thousands into modernizing the kitchen and bathroom and finishing the basement, and if everything had gone well, they would have a modernized house, still in a questionable neighborhood, and contrary to the promises they saw on TV, the house didn’t increase in value at all. Someone ends up buying what’s left of it for $35,000 or $40,000, fixing whatever is wrong or unfinished, and renting it out to someone for $700 a month. A rather inglorious end to those TV-inspired dreams.

I see another pattern on Saturday mornings at estate sales.

More often than not, the family stayed in the same house for decades. The kitchen appliances are usually dated. Sometimes they’re from the 1990s, sometimes the 1970s, and on rare occasions, you even see a range from the 1940s or 1950s. And generally most everything about the house gives the impression of age. Sometimes you see kitschy trends that have come and gone, like shag carpets and dark wood paneling. Sometimes you see timeless craftsmanship. The latter is particularly common in the homes of the wealthy–when they did buy things, they bought things that wouldn’t go out of style, so they’d only have to buy once in a lifetime.

None of these houses will show up on HGTV or any other TV, and for good reason: Houses like that don’t make you run out to Lowe’s or Home Depot and buy their crap.

But at the end of the career or life, there’s something to show for it. A paid-off house with things in it that have to be liquidated, which then goes into the estate. The money from all of it then helps pay for retirement, end-of-life expenses, or goes to the heirs.

The foreclosed houses look a lot more like what you see on TV, even if you have to wipe some grime away to see it. The appliances are certainly newer, the kitchen cabinets are usually newer, and somewhere there’s at least one TV-inspired project, maybe still brewing.

But what’s left to show for it? Years of payments, lost. A wrecked credit score. Possibly some other maladies. Nothing anyone would want.

Clearly it’s much better to just live within one’s means, even if it means sacrificing coolness points in the short term.

In the long term, I’m pretty sure the people who chased the newest trends, overextended themselves and ultimately lost their houses ended up with about the same number of coolness points. Maybe a little less.

The kind of guy who could save America

I went to several estate sales today (it’s what I do on Saturdays, after all), but one was memorable. Some sales just jump out at you, and this one had evil genius/mad scientist written all over it.The estate belonged to a man named Carl. From what I could gather, Carl was Catholic, diabetic, and from my wife’s comments, must not have been married at the time he died. She mostly stayed upstairs while I rollicked around in the basement, which was tinkerer’s heaven.

“This guy was just like you!” my wife marveled when I resurfaced once. Well, she’s half right. I very much would have liked Carl. And yes, Carl liked computers and models and trains and didn’t see any point in buying anything he could make himself. But Carl’s knowledge of physics and other sciences went far, far beyond mine, as did his knowledge of electronics. I pulled out box after box after box of electronic components. Some of the stuff was pretty new, and some of it obviously dated to the early 1970s, if not earlier. It pains me to think most of that stuff is going to get thrown away, but there’s no sense in me buying it, even for pennies on the dollar, when I don’t know what it is, let alone what to do with it.

It’s entirely possible that Carl and I did cross paths, sort of. In the 1980s and early 1990s, BBSing was a common hobby among people who enjoyed electronics, amateur radio, and computers. People exactly like Carl. For that matter, it’s possible he might not have just dialed into BBSs, he fit the stereotype of a BBS operator like a hand in a glove. Who knows, maybe Carl ran a BBS I used to call.

Digging around Carl’s work area, I found lots of different things. I bought some moldmaking supplies and casting resin, Bondo body filler, and some tools. Carl took care of his tools. But on his workbench, I found a single file laying there that still had metal shavings on it. Perhaps Carl died before he was finished with it and cleaned it. I found a brush, cleaned off the file, and could picture Carl looking down, nodding approval. I bought the file and the brush. Both were better than the ones I owned previously.

Unfortunately, Carl is the type of person our society has been trained to fear, rather than respect, especially during this decade. I found plenty of literature that Homeland Security wouldn’t approve of. Instructions for making Tesla coils, and lots of instructions for making things that go boom in the back yard. I also found literature that dealt with alternative car fuels, converting cars to electric power, and generating your own electricity.

He was also obviously very interested in robotics and using computers to control things. In a spare bedroom, I found a pile of old Timex Sinclair 1000 computers and peripherals. He added I/O ports to most of them, and hacked another one to use a Texas Instruments keyboard instead of the cheap membrane keyboard that came with it. He must have used that Sinclair for programming. Another spare bedroom had a couple of barely started robotics projects.

Unfortunately, many people look at people like Carl, and are too quick to label him a deviant, or worse yet, a terrorist. The label is unfair. In fact, during natural disasters, amateur radio operators often are the people with the best information early, giving invaluable information to relief workers.

But the most important thing is the tendency not to think within the boundaries that “normal” people usually confine themselves to. Among his things, I found a book titled How to Patent Your Ideas.

Now I don’t know what kind of ideas he had floating in his head. As far as I can tell, he never published any of them (I have his last name, and I searched out of curiosity).

But with all this talk today about energy independence, I think it’s great that some guy in Crestwood, Missouri was thinking along those lines. I don’t know if any of those thoughts turned into anything tangible or not. But frankly, that kind of work is important–much more so than the tinkering I’m doing in my basement, which so far has resulted only in some wooden toys for my son to play with, and metal toys for me.

We need some new ideas, rather than just buying everything from abroad. I know there are still people like Carl out there, but I hope they aren’t a dying breed.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden desire to go see what I can do with some of the tools I bought from Carl’s workbench.

The Western Electric 500

Another year, another cordless telephone/answering machine.

I bought a cordless phone to replace an aging and failing 2.4 GHz model this week. Our luck with modern phones makes me long for the old days.

western electric rotary phone model 500

The Western Electric model 500 rotary phone is as indestructible and reliable as it is iconic.

I like the old Western Electric 500 (also known simply as “The Bell Phone”) because it was specifically designed not to break.We own three. My wife and I both have a habit of picking them up when we see them cheaply at garage and estate sales. I see at least five a year, but I only buy if it’s cheap. Maybe there’s some book somewhere that says a Model 500 in a common color is worth $20, but I won’t pay that much for one.

They’re annoying to use for dialing, of course, since they’re strictly old-school pulse. But we can use the cordless phone when we need to dial, or the green Southwestern Bell Freedom Phone I bought for my first apartment, which somehow still works after 10 years.

When it comes to just answering the phone and talking on it, they’re just like any other corded phone, except the handset is a bit heavier.

The other annoying thing is that they don’t ring, but tonight I found a cure for that. Opening the phone up and moving one wire usually cures that problem. (Follow the link and scroll to the last section of the page.)

How reliable are they?

Well, tonight I opened up the one I keep in my office to rewire the ringer, and I found it was made in 1957. After 51 years, it’s still going strong.

We have one in the bedroom too. It’s a later model, made by Stromberg Carlson under license, dated September 1978. Although it looks just like a Western Electric, it feels a little bit lighter and less rugged to me. Nevertheless, after 30 years it still works fine.

Those are really good track records, in an age when we tend to think of things as nearly indestructible if they manage to last five years.

And I’ll admit I like the retro look they have about them. Although I’m not old enough to remember the days when it was illegal to plug anything not made by AT&T or a subsidiary into your phone jack, these are the phones pretty much everyone had up until 1984, when the government temporarily broke AT&T up. My parents and grandparents used these phones. And when my house was built in the mid 1960s, it was almost undoubtedly equipped with a 500 too, and I’d be willing to bet that 500 served as its primary phone well into the 1980s.

I wouldn’t want to trade everything in my house for 1949 technology, but just like my old IBM Model M keyboards, I definitely have a thing for those heavy old-fashioned phones.