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Where to buy vintage computers

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.

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“Super utility” tinplate train cars

Tin train cars had a variety of methods to couple them together, but by far the most common method was a coupler commonly called tab-in-slot. The tab from one car mated with a slot in the next. All of the train manufacturers used a variant of this method at one point or another, and all of them would be able to couple together, if not for one nagging detail: height.

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I don’t think this basement layout abandoned since 1967 is necessarily a tragedy

A query appeared on one of the train forums and has slowly spread through several discussion groups I’m aware of, regarding a 2-rail O scale train layout, built by a hobbyist in the 1950s and 1960s, who died in 1967. The layout sat for 45 years, and now someone has approached a couple of hobbyists about possibly liquidating it.

Of course, lots of armchair pundits have their own ideas about what should have happened to that layout in 1967, when the builder died.

Read More »I don’t think this basement layout abandoned since 1967 is necessarily a tragedy

2011 retail tinplate finds, at Big Lots and Shack

If you’re a tinplate fan like me, it would behoove you to make a trip to Big Lots sometime this week. Big Lots has a selection of building-shaped cookie tins priced at $5 each. The buildings include a town hall, post office, bakery, and general store. Additionally, my old friend Radio Shack is selling a building tin full of AA and AAA batteries for $10 until December 10 (it’ll be $20 after that).
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Thank you and farewell, Dr. Grams

About 8 years ago, I set my mind to repair two Lionel trains that had belonged to my dad. I took to the Internet, and about the only repair advice I could find was to track down The Beginner’s Guide to Repairing Lionel Trains by Ray L. Plummer.

Ray L. Plummer was a pen name for Dr. John A. Grams, a journalism professor at Marquette University and a prolific author. Using either name, he wrote a total of 9 books and 129 magazine articles about Lionel and similar vintage trains.

Dr. Grams died this week, aged 77.

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Transformers for vintage trains

A common question is whether transformers for vintage American Flyer, Lionel, and Marx are interchangeable, and what to do if a transformer won’t work.

The simple answer is, yes, a train from one of those makes will run on a transformer from any of the others. They all ran on 0-24 volts AC.

There are two caveats.Read More »Transformers for vintage trains

How eBay is ruining itself

A thread on one of the train forums I frequent mentioned today that the number of listings for Marx trains on eBay is down about 50% over what it was a year or so ago. Not only that, the listings are by and large the common, less interesting stuff.

Meanwhile, a debate rages on another forum I read sometimes, frequented by eBay sellers. On one side are the eBay apologists, saying they’ll just change as eBay changes. On the other side, people struggling to make a profit in the ever-changing environment are finding other venues to sell their wares and finding themselves a lot happier.The problem is that eBay is trying to create a sterile, retail experience. The big shareholders and the executives seem to think that’s what the consumer wants.

Another seller’s theory is that the people who sell brand new merchandise in huge quantities are less troublesome, causing fewer headaches for eBay and for the customers.

The eBay business books I’ve read talk a lot about people who drop-ship pool tables and other merchandise in large quantities, never touching any of it, and supposedly becoming millionaires by doing it.

But the people who put eBay on the map are the people like the ones I see every Saturday morning. They study classified ads the way a devout monk would study Scripture, looking for clues and carefully plotting out their routes. They get up before dawn and drive to their carefully chosen site. Their prey: The estate sale. They line up in the driveway hours before the sale opens, like bargain hunters the day after Thanksgiving. When the sale finally opens, shoppers come in, 10, 20, or 50 at a time, depending on the size of the house, while those who arrived later wait their turn. Any time someone leaves, those in the driveway gawk, trying to see what he or she purchased.

It doesn’t matter what item you can name, I know someone who goes out every Saturday looking for it. Some of these people are collectors, but some of them hawk their finds on eBay. They buy on Saturday and Sunday, then they spend hours the following week figuring out what exactly they have, carefully photographing and describing each item, then listing it, hoping to attract bidders.

The typical eBay addict doesn’t go there to buy a pool table, or the kind of things they sell at a suburban mall. Certainly there are people who buy those sorts of things on eBay. But those tend to be occasional shoppers. The biggest eBay addicts are the fanatics–the serious collectors who spend hours every day scouring new eBay listings, looking for items they don’t have in their collections.

And guess what? These collectors don’t buy from drop-shippers who duplicate the retail experience. The drop-shippers can’t get those kinds of collectibles. It’s the people who get up at 5 a.m. each Saturday to be first in line to prowl around in someone’s attic or basement who get that stuff.

The problem is that the people who do get that stuff have a difficult time becoming (and remaining) Powersellers. A Powerseller has to sell 100 items or $1,000 worth of inventory per month. If I wanted to sell vintage trains on eBay, there’s no way I could locate 1,200 items each year. Not in St. Louis. The $1,000 mark wouldn’t be much easier to hit.

So eBay is driving away that kind of seller. And as a result, eBay is going to lose that type of buyer as well.

I know for a fact there are plenty of collectors in Europe and elsewhere who are eager to take advantage of the low value of the dollar and buy a bunch of collectible American trains at bargain prices due to the exchange rate. Unfortunately the timing is horrible. The new eBay policies have driven away a lot of the people who sell the best items. So the foreigners with money to spend end up spending a lot less than they would like. Sure, they’ll buy the $10 items that are listed, but they’d really rather buy the $100 and $1,000 items that were listed last year but are conspicuously absent today.

Ten years ago, eBay was flying high. They weren’t the first online auction, but they were the most successful, precisely because they allowed ordinary people to sell ordinary (and extraordinary) things. I bought a number of things from online auctions in the mid 1990s, including the Lexmark 4039 laser printer I still use every day. I don’t remember now the name of the auction house where I bought it. I do know it went out of business shortly after eBay became widely known.

Lots of other companies wanted in on the action. Amazon, Yahoo, and others launched auction sites that looked and acted a lot like eBay. But they never went anywhere. The best sellers put their best stuff on eBay. The wannabes tended to just have second-rate stuff sold by second-rate sellers. Case point: I once tried to buy a lot of vintage train magazines from an Amazon auction. I won, paid my money, and waited. And waited. A week later I e-mailed the seller. No response. Finally after another week he responded, saying he’d been having computer trouble and asking if I still wanted the magazines. Well, since he offered me the refund, I took it. I spent the money on eBay instead.

Yahoo auctions are gone, closed about a year ago. If Amazon’s auctions are still open, they’re sure doing a good job of hiding them.

If another company wants to get a piece of eBay’s business, the time is right. There are lots of refugee eBay sellers looking for someplace a little cheaper, with a little more stable set of rules where they can sell. And if a large enough group of them take up shop somewhere, there are plenty of buyers more than willing to follow them there.

It may not happen this year. But I do think it’s only a matter of time.

What to do if you can’t find a Lionel Polar Express set

The Polar Express is turning out (so far) to be a bigger hit for Lionel than it is for Tom Hanks. Dealers are sold out and the sets are turning up on Ebay, usually with asking prices $100-$200 higher than the suggested retail price. It’s not as hot as Tickle Me Elmo, but since the words "hot selling" and "train set" haven’t appeared together since the late 1950s, well…

So what should you do if you (or someone in your household) wants The Polar Express and can’t get one? Hint: Ebay shouldn’t be your first resort.First and foremost, Lionel did little other than apply new lettering to existing product to make this set. So if you can live without the posable figures that were included in the set, any 2-8-4 Berkshire steam engine pulling a string of heavyweight passenger cars is going to look like the Polar Express. That’s Greek to you? Don’t worry. If you call up a hobby shop that sells trains and ask for that, someone there will know what that means.

But, from a playing with trains standpoint, passenger cars aren’t nearly as interesting as freights. Once you get tired of watching the Polar Express run around in circles, the set’s going to do time in the basement or the attic and maybe come back out around the holidays to grace Mom’s porcelain village with its presence. There’s nothing wrong with that, unless the train was intended to be played with.

If the Polar Express has kindled an interest in trains, Junior is going to have more fun with a freight set, because freight trains haul stuff. Gondolas and hoppers can haul loads of marbles, flat cars can haul automobiles and construction equipment, and so on. New cars can be added to make it more interesting, usually at fairly low cost. Besides, a freight train isn’t going to scream "Christmas," which the Polar Express certainly does.

I recommend O27 type trains for kids for two reasons. First, I recommend it because it’s what I grew up with and it’s what my dad grew up with, so it must be the best, right? More seriously, O27 trains are big and heavy enough that they can be handled without breaking. The track can be permanently attached to a table, but that isn’t necessary. It works just fine set up on the floor. HO and N scale track don’t work as well if they aren’t bolted down, and an O27 set has much more tolerance for kinks in the track. Also, because of O27’s sharp curves, you can actually squeeze a better O27 layout into a 4’x5′ space than you could an HO set. It isn’t as realistic, but kids aren’t as worried about perfect realism as adults. Another advantage of O27 is that it’s scaled at 1:64, which is about the same scale as the Matchbox-type cars that every kid already has. Kids would probably play with the trains and cars together anyway even if they weren’t the same scale, but since they’re sized to go together, they give more play options together.

What brand? Lionel is the venerable brand, but there are others. If you go to a store like Hobby Lobby, you’ll see sets from a company called K-Line, if you’re lucky, maybe one or two Lionel accessories. Many of the so-called anchor department stores carry a set from either Lionel or a company called MTH in their catalogs, if not in the stores themselves. While the brand loyalty to Lionel and MTH is even more ridiculous than Ford and Chevy pickup truck loyalty, there isn’t a lot of difference these days. The nice thing is that even if you buy a set from one company, the other companies’ cars will work with them. Most of the hobby shops here in St. Louis carry a large selection of inexpensive cars from a company called Industrial Rail. Unfortunately, no matter which brand you get, it’s very difficult to find an O27 gauge set for less than $200.

Used, er, vintage trains can be a lot less expensive than buying new, but I don’t recommend it for a first-time buyer looking for a train set for a child. I’ve bought a lot of used vintage trains, and about half of them run. It’s usually impossible to tell from looking at the outside or from its age if it’s going to run. An 85-year-old train I bought ran–poorly, but it ran–while a 30-year old train I bought didn’t run at all. If you’re going to buy used, buy from a hobbyist who has been using it and can demonstrate that it still works, or buy from a dealer who will stand behind it.

But if you must have the Polar Express, what to do? Ebay may be your only option. Lionel fanatics have known this set was coming for about a year, and they bought up a good percentage of the sets. Most of the remaining sets are spoken for. A phone call to your local Lionel dealers (look in the phone book under "hobbies") might turn up a set. If someone actually advertises a set in the ads on the left-hand side of this page, they’re worth checking out too, on the logic that they wouldn’t pay to advertise something they don’t have in stock.

If you must turn to Ebay, e-mail the seller before you bid to make sure the seller actually has the set. A lot of people are listing sets on Ebay with the intent of ordering a set if someone buys it. This practice is illegal, but these buyers either don’t know or care. But why should you pay someone $350 to order a set and wait until March to get it when you can pay $250 for the set yourself and wait until March to get it?

The other option is to wait until March. Lionel will make more sets. Trust me on that. They need the money.