With Fall officially here, it’s time to step back and reflect on this past summer’s adventures. Summer wouldn’t be complete without at least going to a yard sale. While I did my annual yard sale hunting, I also got to experience the tech daddy of yard sales: the MIT Swapfest. If this isn’t your cup of mocha, follow this equation and you’ll get a good idea of what it’s about:

MIT Swapmeet = 3(science fair) + (comic con)/4 + miami swapmeet

The Lore of the MIT Swapfest

I’ve heard stories of the MIT Swapfest from friends and co-workers, of old computer and electronic gear up for grabs. Need an oscilloscope? They’ve got it. Need a replacement power supply for a Commodore Plus4? Check. And did I mention old skool games? Oh the stories people told me, of the boxes of C64 floppies and NES gems.

MIT Swapfest Vendor Pass

In spite of these great tales, I rarely go to Boston. This was the excuse I used for several months until around May, when during a volunteer session at WinCycle, MB mentioned that she needed to do some hardware housecleaning and offload some of her old computer gear. For various reasons, MB and I couldn’t go in May or June. July was just as busy for the both of us, but enough was enough; we had to experience the MIT Swapmeet for ourselves. MB got a vendor pass for the July 16 event; vendor setup time was 7am, so we (actually MB) loaded the gear into the truck the night before and took off for Beantown at 4.30am.

Highlights, Low lifes, and Other Oddities

I expected the Swapfest to be an epic experience and it was, but for different reasons. Several things come to mind, not in any particular order:

Mr. Dooshbag

Let’s say that there was a seller that that we’ll call “Mr. Dooshbag.” One of the perks of being a vendor is that you get first dibs on other vendors’ stuff before the gates open for the public at 9am. We were setting up when Mr. Dooshbag stopped by our booth and inquired about our box of Atari and NES games. These were dupes of games MB and I already had, so we were willing to part with them, but Mr. Dooshbag wanted $5 for a box of 25 games. I balked and told MB to not take anything less than $15. Mr. Dooshbag offered $10 and MB took it. Granted, we’ve been in the car for the past two hours and just started taking stuff out of the truck when Mr. Dooshbag stopped by. He could smell our salesman n00bness and we got played.

Unsurprisingly, when we got set up and looked around at other vendors’ stuff, lo and behold, guess who was the one vendor at the whole swapfest selling NES and Atari games? Yup, Mr. Dooshbag. At this point, I was like, whatever, that’s just “good business sense.” When I stop by his booth, he was already set up, but he kindly told me to leave and come back in 10 minutes. Guess what time it was when he told me this? 10 minutes ’til 9am. Even though he was the only vendor to not let other vendors see his stuff, at that time I gave him the benefit of doubt. We’re new here, I said to myself.

Later in the Swapfest, I go to his booth again and check out his stuff. OK collection. Mostly commonly found NES games, with a couple of harder to find stuff. One of the games was Pro Wrestling (common), one I was actually looking for. He was selling it for $3, which was in line with Ebay sales, but here’s the kicker: I offered $1 for it, since we did sell him all those games for cheap. “You sold me those games earlier today, right? So I’ll give you a discount and sell it to you for $2.” Since I was already there, didn’t have to pay s/h, etc., I bought it for $2, but WTF! Granted, it was only a difference of $1, but look at it from the other side: he couldn’t even lower the price to $1.

To add salt to the wound: I asked him about a couple of the games, since he said that he “collects these all of the time and has thousands of these.” He knew NOTHING about the games, except for their rarity. Instead of being knowledgeable of the material, as a comic book store owner would, he’s more like a Border’s manager. For the record, I didn’t protest when MB sold the games and I obviously cared more about that sale than she did. OK, rant over.

The Parrot Guy

Like at any fleamarket or swapmeet, you’re gonna run into your share of characters. One such person was The Parrot Guy. He was this scraggily bearded fellow who wore a red hawaiian shirt and had a live parrot perched on his shoulder. He must be a regular/Swapfest coordinator because it seemed like everyone knew him/about him. In any case, there was all this birdcrap all over his shoulder and he would carry on a conversation as if it wasn’t there. And I mean ALL OVER his shoulder. To increase the gross out factor, he also tended to hang out in front of the hot dog stand, a fact I’m glad I didn’t know until AFTER MB and I had one for lunch. Which brings up another minor rant: boiled hot dogs? Maybe it’s because of a fire code or something, but that’s just ghetto. At least try and cook it over an majorly overclocked PC system or something.

MIT Swapfest Vendor Pass Our initial setup. This changed a lot as the day went on. MIT Swapfest Vendor Pass

Rap session with the Sinclairs

MB had a couple of Timex Sinclairs for sale and someone would walk by, look at MB’s Sinclair setup, gasp “OMG” and then give a 1-2 minute account of how the Sinclair affected them. “I remember typing this program… how long those programs took… I remember my father showing me a program…” And on and on. This went on for almost an hour, with about 20 stories in all, sometimes interacting with other folks (“Yeah! I remember that!”). My story? I brought a camcorder and didn’t record these sessions. Verdict: I’m a douche.

Misc. stuff sold at the Swapfest.

Other highlights

  • Almost everyone we met was really nice, helpful, and fun to talk with.
  • Unsurprisingly, a lot of computer stuff, ranging from floppy-based PC games, to brand new über case fans. One vendor had several interesting Mac laptop stuff (can’t remember the model right now), but MB said that she already owned a couple of them. There was also a ton of C64 software for sale that I didn’t have time to sort through.
  • The MIT Radio Society and Harvard Wireless Club are co-sponsors of the event, so unsurprisingly all of the walkie talkie channels were used. MB and I had to switch channels several times during the Swapfest.
  • Seeing a skinny, crooked teethed kid beaming with pride as he lugged under each arm an oscilloscope and an old SGI server.
  • Altough there was a lot of geekiness at the Swapfest, it was still a swapmeet, which meant that there were a lot of 1st/2nd generation immigrants –mostly Haitian and Cuban(?), some Chinese– that hauled away tons of audio gear and scored free hardware at the end of the day, when vendors are offloading unsold items.

And other low points

  • We drove there about a week or two after one of the ceiling panels in one of the tunnels struck and killed a driver. With my incredible navigational skills, instead of avoiding the tunnels, we drove through them not once, but four times.

Which brings up another point:

  • Driving through Boston sucks. Driving through Cambridge sucks even more.

Overall, it was a great experience: MB offloaded a ton of stuff, we covered our expenses, got to meet a lot of cool people, check out interesting gear, and learned a couple of things for the next time we go back.

The last MIT Swapfest for 2006 is Oct. 15, and then goes underground until next April.

Swapfest in full swing.