I like to support my local dealers, and of course Ebay makes it easy to buy trains, but there’s still nothing like an old-fashioned train show. Here are my train show tips that I’ve found helped me in the past. Hopefully they’ll help you too.
You may recognize some of these from my tips for garage sales and estate sales, but some of the methods are unique to shows. Also, not all shows are the same, and my tips may work better for local shows than traveling shows but most of them should work for both types.
Have a budget
Have a clear idea how much you’re willing to spend, and bring cash. That makes it harder to go over budget. This has saved me more than a few times.
Have an idea what you’re looking for
Bring a list and try to stick to it. This helps keep you from going over budget, and it also cuts down on regret purchases. Almost a decade ago, I went to a train show and bought virtually nothing but street lamps. Sound boring? They’ve been on my layout ever since.
I went into the show knowing what I wanted and what a fair price to pay would be. I found several below that price, so I bought them. I also bought one for over that price. Maybe I could have haggled. I decided not to.
Hesitation can cost you a deal
About 15 years ago, I spied a nice Marx station on a table. It was the Oak Park station with a diesel horn. It was a pretty good price. I decided to think about it. Five minutes later it was gone. I haven’t seen one at a show since.
Hesitation won’t cost you a deal every time. Sometimes I recognize things that caught my eye at the last show. But you will lose some deals if you hesitate.
Look both on and under the tables
The best jewels are always on the tables, and usually they’ll be priced fairly. But most dealers have junk boxes under the tables also offering items for sale. What they consider junk may not be what you consider junk. If you can afford good stuff, look at the good stuff first, pausing only if something in a junk box catches your eye. Then make another round and look at the junk boxes.
If you’re on a tight budget, you may spend most of your time looking under the tables, and that’s OK. For some people, “table diving” for bargains and fixer-uppers is most of the fun.
If you’re not sure on a price, check it discretely. Keep a price guide in your jacket pocket or check with your cell phone. This can keep you from overpaying.
Be discrete about it. Some dealers go ballistic at the site of a price guide. Others don’t care. I’ve seen some dealers have their guides sitting on the table. Be discrete just in case. If someone objects, just apologize, say you’re checking to see if you have the item, and put the book away. If that doesn’t immediately defuse the situation, move on to the next table.
Have business cards
Bring a pile of your business cards with you. If you find someone who has the kind of stuff you like, or if you strike up a conversation with someone and they left your kind of stuff at home, they can stay in contact with you if you give them your card.
Take business cards
If someone at the show has your kind of stuff and has cards on his or her table, take a card so you can stay in contact.
Don’t plan on shopping much if you have your kids with you
I like going to train shows with my kids, but if we go together, they’re going to be setting the agenda. Small children get bored pretty quickly, so you can pretty much expect to be an hour and done. You may get to look at a couple of tables, but you won’t be doing much browsing.
Sometimes I’ll go to a show on my own, then come back with my kids in the afternoon. That gives me the morning to look for the kind of stuff I like, and there’s still enough time in the afternoon for them to get some train fun in. That’s the arrangement I’ve found works best for us.
How to negotiate
Make sure you take a good mix of bills with you, especially smaller bills. Here’s why–you’ll need them when you try to negotiate. If you don’t like a price and you want to make an offer, don’t just ask if they’d take less. Take out the money and have the money in your hand. “Would you take $19?” is harder to turn down if you’ve got Hamilton, Lincoln, and four Washingtons in your hand when you ask. Also, more bills looks like more money. So you might actually be more likely to get a yes if you offer $19 than if you offer $20 with a Jackson in hand.
Also, don’t be a jerk about asking for discounts. Don’t ask for a discount on every single item. If it’s a bargain at $5, don’t try to talk someone down to $4. Be nice and be pleasant. If you rake everyone over the coals on price every time, word will get out about you pretty quick. I can’t tell you how many times after someone left a table, a dealer shook his head and said to me, “That guy will try to talk you down on every price.”
So be nice. These are your fellow enthusiasts. In some cases they’re trying to make a living, and in other cases they’re selling off some of their collection because they need to. If a price is out of line it’s OK to ask for a better price, but if you act like you’re entitled to a discount just because you asked, it won’t be long before someone tells you otherwise.
The best deals happen at opening and closing time
There was a time when, if a show opened at 9 am, I was there before 9 standing in line to get in, and I left when the show closed in the afternoon. I rarely make a day of a show anymore. But the best bargains don’t last past the first few minutes, so it pays to be at the show when it opens. You can also score some deals at the end of the day, when people would rather knock a few bucks off some stuff than pack it up and take it home.
I remember going to one show and arriving fairly late in the day. At a dealer table, I spotted a Marx car I like. He asked if I like Marx and I said I did. He pointed at a box of Marx stuff under the table and offered it to me for $5. Two other dealers did the same thing. I came home with more than I intended that day, but I did have some fun fixing that stuff up.
I have other tricks for saving money on model trains but it’s hard to beat the deals you find in the early and late hours of train shows.
Buddy up if you can
If you can, go to the sale with one of your buddies. This pays off early on, because the two of you can cover twice as much ground in that crucial first few minutes. Cruise the aisles looking for your kind of stuff and your buddy’s kind of stuff, and tip each other off. You’re both more likely to find more that way.
Of course none of this is very helpful if you can’t find any shows in the first place. Here are my tips for finding train shows.