The Life-Changing Magic Of Buying Stuff To Hack

At the dawn of every new year, many people make resolutions of some sort. Some resolve to live a less materialistic life and trim their possessions, and in our year 2019 this school of thought has been turbocharged by Marie Kondo. Author of book The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up and star of related Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, her trend has been credited with a sharp rise in thrift store donations. To the point that some thrift stores are swamped with incoming inventory and struggling to keep up.

Hackers, this is our call to action. We can be the heroes these thrift stores need! New and exciting projects are on the shelves of our local thrift stores waiting for us. We can give a second life to something that no longer sparks joy in others. A child has abandoned their scooter? Give it some serious power. Someone’s heirloom jewel box? Nah, that’s a hard drive enclosure. Simple music instruments? Obviously it needs an Arduino twist. Innocent children’s toy? Fresh nightmare fuel. And that’s before we even get to the electronics section, featuring computers that have been gathering dust for decades and perfect for scratching a retrocomputing itch.

Of course, we recognize that some would choose to go in the other direction, to tidy up their collection of half-finished hacks. Say goodbye those that, if we were honest with ourselves, we are never going to finish. This is great, too, because the goal is to have everything in the hands of people who will appreciate them. If that should spark the next wave of joyous hacks, so much the better.

41 thoughts on “The Life-Changing Magic Of Buying Stuff To Hack

  1. I’ve ditched a few boxfuls of ‘neoprojects’ back in the recycling bin at work to free up both physical and mind space at home.

    Worst thing is people then coming to tell me I should go look in the bin because there’s cool stuff in there…

    1. Haha, so true! It’s actually a endless loop, some people might be super grateful about the treasures you ditched, then throw it again a couple weeks/years after ;) I know that too well…

      1. I would love to have a “junk depot” where people trade cool old gadgets online like a flea market. Sadly there really isn’t any good way to ship large machining equipment for cheap.

    2. Same happens with the “graveyard” (recycle shelf) at our hackerspace. I’ll ditch a few things there, hoping that someone else will find them interesting. The next day, I have a message “hey I saw some stuff in the graveyard that looks like you’d enjoy it, I tucked it into your storage tote”…


    1. I used to horde working computer monitors because if I wanted to dedicate an inexpensive computer to some project or another there were always old working parts of every other kind lying around left over from my and my friends’ upgrades. Monitors however were rare.

      Then the thrift shops started carrying them, usually around $15, sometimes as low as $5. I stopped collecting them. I was happy to regain that space in my office!

      Now all the local thrift shops have stopped accepting all things computer and so do not sell them either.

      And I am out of monitors!

      1. I talked to one owner when I was looking for a monitor. He said they can’t be bothered with checking to see if they work. I should have told him to carry them, reduce the price, and I will check them out myself.

  2. “the goal is to have everything in the hands of people who will appreciate them”

    How refreshing, I like that!

    It seems to me that the fad lifestyle of the current generation is to rebel against the materialism of previous generations by possessing the least stuff possible, living in the smallest space possible and spending all one’s free time idly socializing. This is not good for hobbyist “making”. I also think that hobbyist “making” while maybe occasionally resulting in significant inventions itself is also the prime inspiration for people to become professional engineers.

    The rise of the minimalist lifestyle does not bode well for future scientific and technological progress.

    Does that matter?

    Given pending environmental change and the fact that we have already significantly reduced the amount of labor our society requires (reduced jobs) but have not yet reached the point of being a post-scarcity society this may be the absolute worst time to slow down.

    1. You can have my junk parts when you pry them from my cold, dead body! I could never afford to fuel my imagination with new parts. If something goes into production, fine. But toying around and prototyping calls for affordability. Plus, when it breaks or doesn’t work, it’s easy to let go of or digest for parts.

  3. Sadly, our thrift stores are turning into full blown retail stores, with prices to match.

    Used Playstation 2, no cables, controllers or games. 50 euro.
    Old touchscreen kiosk? 400 please.
    Anything game related? eBay prices.

    1. yeah, I have noticed the same thing starting to happen here too. The less ‘chain’ the thrift shop, the more likely to find deals, but otherwise everything just seems to be priced off eBay and other online searches. Used to stop by once a week and find treasures occasionally, now I don’t bother.

  4. As a kid I loved to read electronics magazines like Popular Electronics, Radio Electronics, Electronics Now, etc… I especially looked up to the authors that built things out of parts from their junk boxes. That was like magic to me. The ability to take pieces from broken or otherwise unwanted things and shape them into something new. I wanted to learn to do that.

    I didn’t particularly like those authors’ project articles though. The odds of actually being able to find the exact same parts they used was near zero. Even identifying the parts I could get was a problem. Sure, resistors were easy enough but L/C meters were too expensive. In those pre-internet days all I had was the local small town library and I couldn’t find anything about how to decipher the markings on non-electrolytic capacitors. Inductors don’t usually have markings. And semiconductors.. If it wasn’t in the limited catalog that was the Radio Shack Semiconductor Substitution Handbook it might as well be a rock. And most part numbers I found in commercially built junk were not in that hobbyist oriented collection.

    So fast forward.. I still don’t quite have the electronics knowledge to remove a bunch of parts off of some old PCBs and then reassemble them into a new gadget of my own design. I do feel that I am getting close though. And I certainly do build things already using a more modular approach.

    So now I have this new dilemma. I could fulfill my childhood dream and start building gadgets from junk. But I am not a kid on a small child sized budget anymore. And these are internet days where new parts of all kinds imaginable and then some are just a few clicks and a tiny amount of pocket change away. But so is sharing those builds with the internet that made them possible.

    If I build with junk I fulfill that old dream but my designs lose their value for sharing on the internet. They become too difficult to replicate. If I build with readily available new parts then I have designs I can be proud to post online and feel good when others build them. But I will never have proven to myself that I can do what those old magazine authors did. I could try to do some of both but I only have so much free time to complete a small number of projects.

    To thrift or not to thrift, that is my question.

    1. Just sharing it has value in it self. It shows that it is possible to build something like it and if you use salvaged parts, it might also include some of your reasoning on why you used the part.
      I don’t build 99.99% of the stuff I read about online as is, but I do get inspired.

      For example, I have been reading about a hams quest to convert a 150MHz commercial radio to 50MHz.
      The radio is pure unobtainium here, but the ideas and concepts translate to my project of converting a 450MHz cellphone to 29MHz.
      And in general I just like reading about neat projects.
      I doubt anyone here ever built any of the Sprite_tm’s projects, but the project logs ware always a good read.

  5. I’ve made a hobby of thrifting for more than ten years now, and I’ve found all kinds of fascinating and useful things. I’ve found myself a working Heathkit oscilloscope for $6, an old-school Dymo label maker for $2, a dining table for $10, and many things I’ve pulled apart to hack or use for parts. MY best recent find was a working Commodore VIC-20 and matching cassette drive for $5.

    Prices have risen at most thrift stores in the past few years, and they are getting savvier about checking ebay for prices on certain rare items, but great bargains can still be had, and with those bargains becoming rarer, they become all that much more exciting when you do find them.

    Nice write up, Roger!

    1. The main problem with checking ebay prices is that people “checking ebay for price indication” easily confuse the asking price with the true value of what something actually is worth. Nobody notices that an item isn’t sold for that sometimes ridiculous price, but people do see the price and nobody wants to miss the boat or sell something “too cheap” so prices go up… that is until the well runs dry or the hype blows over .

      1. I’ve occasionally had good luck talking to a store manager and showing them other ebay listings, and pointing out that the item isn’t worth near what they’re asking for it. Depending on the store, and whether the manager is in a good mood, I can sometimes get a re-pricing.

        What really drives me nuts is when I find un-sold garage-sale castoffs that still have their garage sale sticker on them. 50 cents at the garage sale, $2 at the thrift store

        1. Not removing that old garage sale sticker was laziness on some employees part. But I imagine they aren’t paid that much either so whatever.

          As for the price difference I can see how it might be reasonable for a thrift shop to charge significantly more than a garage sale. That item can sit on the shelf for months waiting for just the person who needs it enough to pay that higher price. A garage sale usually only lasts a day or two and attendance usually peters out before the afternoon begins.

          A garage sale is a horrible indicator of what a thing is actually worth. It’s basically a way to donate your crap to your neighbors rather than sending it off to the landfill. Almost any other way of selling a thing can fetch a higher price.

  6. I’ll have to start hitting my local shops more often. I’ve got some excellent scores in the past, but in my experience it really takes some dedication. Unless you can get there at least a few times a week, the chances of you getting the high end stuff drops off significantly.

    You’ve got to remember you aren’t the only one looking, many people raid thrift stores for stuff to resell on eBay. In the past I’ve seen people browsing the shelves with the eBay app open on their phone, searching for completed auctions.

    1. If you’re looking for popular stuff that sells quickly, forget it. Be there or be square.

      But if you’re looking for obscure stuff that sits on the shelf for a long time, ask the staff if you can leave a list. Just a business card with a few notes of items you’re looking for. They’ll often tape it up behind the counter, and call you when that stuff comes in. If that means the shelf space frees up quickly, it’s a win for everyone.

  7. I used to often go to a few local thrift stores and they were a veritable goldmine for both materials and inspiration for future projects. Unfortunately though, within the past year or two they seem to be pricing from ebay or amazon and often I find that it may actually be cheaper buying online even with the cost of shipping. What used to go for under $5 in mint condition just a year ago is now $25 sold as is in rough condition. It’s sad but I rarely visit any more since I am almost positive that even if I happen to find something I want it will be way overpriced for the value it would give me.

  8. Once upon a time, thrift stores used to have FANTASTIC deals on stuff, got a ton of wonderful scores as a kid on a budget but as of late all the ones around me have been spiking prices to the point that they’re overcharging for way out of date and poor condition hardware. Not much of the good stuff either :(

    1. +1 here, and not only the thrift stores. Charity auctions, church / hospitals / associations , etc go that way too. Prices 80% of retail, without invoices or warranty, on itens of unknown state. And strange rules of only 10 people can be inside at a time, and can stay only one hour
      After going to some because people pestered me to do it, I decided just to give some money directly to the charity if I feel like helping them, and letting people who want to waste/risk money to have their fun.

    1. Most of the 2nd hand stores I’ve been in, will let you plug in something “to see if it works”.
      And, even if it works okay, they may not have any idea that it is working properly, such as the Anelace LED Binary clock I bought for $2.

  9. I have been holding on to a bunch of old appliances and electronics because I plan to hack or repurpose them someday, but I am at a loss for getting started. Can anyone recommend any good sites or tutorials I can check out to start playing?

  10. I am a bit spoiled. I live next to a large university that has a surplus sales department. Monitors are $5.00 or less. Accessories are 10 cents to 50 cents. Working laser printers $10.00. Found a chiller for my laser for $5.00.
    Working computers and laptops from $10.00. I have to limit my time there because I never leave empty handed!

      1. UMich Dispo is like this, MSU Surplus is like this. Almost every university surplus store I’ve been into is like this. We don’t know where you’re located so we can’t do your searching for you, but just search the name of every local school with “surplus” or “property disposition” and see what turns up.

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