A wide variety of customers listen to a sales pitch at the First Saturday Computer flea market in Dallas.
Candy’s laptop is hosed and we need to get her back into the digital world. She is thinking about an iPad or a new laptop, but in the meantime, Lee has decided not to take his desktop computer back to school with him. It’s a Frankenstein machine I built for him years ago, carefully assembling it from pieces as they went on sale at Fry’s or MicroCenter. It’s now about half a decade out of date, but it’s still functional, chugging along as always. It’ll work fine for surfing the web or doing some light word processing. He has a nice monitor that he’ll take with him, so all we need is a new monitor and we’ll be good to go.
I know I can get a cheap used monitor at the First Saturday Sale. And today is the first Saturday in August.
The First Saturday Sale used to be a big deal. It started out in 1969, in the pre-digital days, as ham radio aficionados would gather in the vacant lots on the east end of downtown Dallas and trade tubes and microphones and whatever passed for electronic equipment back in the day.
With the rise of the personal computer, digital technology entered the picture, and the popularity of this high tech swap meet/flea market grew until in the 1990s it reached the stage where hundreds of vendors and up to forty thousand customers would descend upon the cracked asphalt. Rows upon rows of vendor tables would stretch over about a square mile of real estate with crowds milling between, staring at memory chips, picking through piles of used software, or feeling hard drives, wondering if they would work or not.
I remember needing to buy a replacement drive, and picking up three of them for less than a tenth of what a new one would be. I asked the guy if they worked and he said, “I have no idea, I pulled a thousand of these out of a corporate job and don’t have time to test them.” I figured at least one of the three would be good – two were.
I used to enjoy going down there during the salad days. Actually, I would seldom actually buy anything, but to walk up and down the crowded rows gawking at the stuff was fantastic entertainment. I remember once a guy had about a half-dozen high powered industrial lasers for sale out of the back of his pickup truck. The vendors were wildly diverse, everything from legitimate computer stores picking up a little extra business to people that were obviously spending the week dumpster-diving and dumping their crap in a big pile with a cardboard sign that said, “Everything One Dollar.”
The only people making big money probably were the folks that ran a breakfast sausage truck feeding all the hungry bargain hunters. I remember salivating at the smell of the cooking sausage as the sweet smoke crawled down the aisles between the vendor tables, pushed by the yellow light of the rising sun. The sale was officially Saturday morning, but to get the hottest deals you had to get there at one or two AM. The whole thing was pretty much over by noon. Candy went down there with me once to score some deals on used music CDs and said, “I have never seen so many nerds in one place in my entire life.”
It was a blast, and like all good things, it didn’t last. The rate of change in computer equipment accelerated to the point that used stuff wasn’t good for anything. The prices for hardware kept dropping until it was cheaper to buy something new. And software migrated into two camps – extremely expensive (and the First Saturday Sale has always been crawling with the authorities looking for bootleg software – there were some spectacular arrests) and free – neither category does well at a flea-market. The vacant lots of the east part of downtown were torn up and replaced by the billion dollar development of the Dallas Arts District and the humble computer sale was pushed west under the Woodall Rogers Freeway Overpass.
It’s still there. Even though it is only a vague shadow of its former self, bargains can still be had at the sale. I have had good luck buying headphones, networking gear, wireless keyboards, small obscure components, and especially, flat screen monitors.
There were several vendors with tables full of used flat screen monitors.
So down we went. We didn’t want to deal with the heat so we left as early as I could haul myself out of bed – about seven in the morning (it was still plenty hot, though the rumbling overpass overhead provides some well-needed shade) and everything was in full swing. Years ago, it would take an hour to walk from one end to the other, but now it is so compact that within ten minutes we had bought a nice used Dell flat screen monitor for forty bucks. We walked around a bit more and Candy bought a beat up old tool box for next to nothing, but I didn’t see anything else that caught my eye.
It's a lot of work sometimes to get this old crap up and functioning.
There are still bargains. I you need a computer, you can buy a useful desktop for a hundred dollars or so. These are obviously corporate units that have been replaced and refurbished – they should work fine. There are still vendors selling top-quality stuff at a discount and there is still a big area where it looks like someone dumped a huge pile of random junk – if you are brave enough you can dig through this and find a jewel – something that you never knew you couldn’t live without.
Instead of a breakfast sausage truck there is a taco truck, and they seemed to be making the most money. But it is nice to know that there are still enough die-hard nerds to keep the sale alive, if barely.
A couple of experience computer bargain hunters work their way through the many bins of parts. Coffee helps.