VCF Swap Meet Takes Step Back To Move Forward

When computers were the sort of thing you ordered from a catalog and soldered together in your garage, swap meets were an invaluable way of exchanging not just hardware and software, but information. As computers became more mainstream and readily available, the social aspect of these events started to take center stage. Once online retail started really picking up steam, it was clear the age of the so-called “computer show” was coming to a close. Why wait months to sell your old hardware at the next swap when you could put it on eBay from the comfort of your own home?

Of course, like-minded computer users never stopped getting together to exchange ideas. They just called these meets something different. By the 2000s, the vestigial remnants of old school computer swap meets could be found in the vendor rooms of hacker cons. The Vintage Computer Festival (VCF) maintained a small consignment area where attendees could unload their surplus gear, but it wasn’t the real draw of the event. Attendees came for the workshops, the talks, and the chance to hang out with people who were passionate about the same things they were.

Consignment goods at VCF East XIII in 2018.

Then came COVID-19. For more than a year we’ve been forced to cancel major events, suspend local meetups, and in general, avoid one another. Some of the conventions were revamped and presented virtually, and a few of them actually ended up providing a unique and enjoyable experience, but it still wasn’t the same. If you could really capture the heart and soul of these events with a video stream and a chat room, we would’ve done it already.

But this past weekend, the folks behind VCF East tried something a little different. As indoor gatherings are still strongly discouraged by New Jersey’s stringent COVID restrictions, they decided to hold a computer swap meet in the large parking lot adjacent to the InfoAge Science and History Museum. There were no formal talks or presentations, but you could at least get within speaking distance of like-minded folks again in an environment were everyone felt comfortable.

A Promising Start

If you’re going to walk around a parking lot with your arms full of gear, the end of April at the Jersey shore isn’t a bad time or place to do it. The beautiful weather certainly helped the turnout, which by all accounts, was even better than expected. In accordance with the state’s current COVID guidelines, tables were kept a minimum of six feet from each other and everyone was required to wear a mask when entering the cordoned off area. These were simple and reasonable precautions given the current situation, and nobody had a problem complying with them.

It should be said that VCF held a similar swap last year, but given that it was during the earlier stages of the pandemic, it was a more low-key affair. Even still, enough people showed up during those uncertain times that the organizers were emboldened to do it again with a stronger advertising push. With the safety precautions in place, the improving weather, and the amount of time we’ve all been stuck indoors, far more people were willing to poke their head out this time around.

That said, I couldn’t help but get the feeling the organizers were hesitant to fully commit to the event given the circumstances. The only onsite amenity offered was a single portable toilet that became increasingly crowded as the day went on, and even the table selling official VCF merchandise wasn’t fully set up until later in the morning.

Keeping your overhead as low as possible for an experimental event like this is understandable, but getting in contact with some local food trucks would have at least made sure there were refreshments available for people who had been standing outside for several hours. A number of attendees also commented that a portable ATM would have been welcome, as they ran out of cash when it turned out there were more sellers than they had anticipated.

Old Meets New

While not exactly a complaint, several people I spoke to said that they were unsure what to expect when they showed up given the ambiguous messaging of the event. Naturally it had been advertised as the “VCF Swap Meet”, but it wasn’t immediately clear if vintage computers would be the only hardware on the menu. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the term “vintage computer” tends to have a different meaning depending on how many times you’ve traveled around the sun. Are we talking about Commodore and Atari, or blinkenlights and toggle switches?

In the end, the sellers that showed up offered a healthy mix of modern and classic computers with a sprinkling of electronic components and amateur radio. Older computers did outnumber the contemporary machines by a bit, at least partially due to VCF themselves operating several tables to offload their own surplus inventory, but there were enough bins full of modern video cards and SATA hard drives to even things out.

Undoubtedly, some people would have preferred the event to cater exclusively to vintage hardware. But a more balanced approach is far more attainable, and frankly, more likely to succeed given that it will bring in a larger array of buyers and sellers. Going forward, VCF should consider succinctly advertising the event as a generic computer and electronic swap meet with a classic computing theme.

Coming Full Circle

While several notable events have tentatively scheduled dates for 2021, it’s far too early to say for sure if it will be safe to resume large scale indoor gatherings this year. We all desperately want things to return to normal, but the reality is, the threat of COVID-19 is still hanging over our heads.

With that being the case, I hope that other groups are inspired by the success the Vintage Computer Federation has found with their swap meet. It’s proof that, at least while the weather holds, not everything has to be done virtually. If one European-style hacker camp can continue in the face of the pandemic, then perhaps America’s version could be a revitalization of the classic traveling computer show. At the very least, here’s hoping that the VCF decides to continue holding these swap meets even after the coast is clear.

44 thoughts on “VCF Swap Meet Takes Step Back To Move Forward

  1. Thank you for the wonderful review, it was such a great day and we appreciate the post event writeup! VCF and Hackaday have a long standing and valued relationship.

    Unfortunately most food vendors we reached out to were hesitant to commit to an event that was so new with an uncertain turnout, especially since things have been so tight the past year in all aspects of food service. When we finally found vendors willing to share the risk with us they were already booked for the date. Wall Township requires a food vendor license be applied for and approved, and since the event takes place on township property we must work within those confines as well.

    Now that we have another swap meet under our belt and found more than one vendor willing to commit to the event (and we have a better handle on what they can anticipate for attendance) you can rest assured that we are planning on having a food truck or trucks at the next swap meet. We came close at the second swap meet, third time’s the charm!

    We now know we can attract a crowd three times the size of what we just did in November of 2020, and anticipate the event to grow each year, so the port-o-potties shall increase in number! :-)

    Tony Bogan
    VCF Steering Committee Member

    1. I remember the last time I went to an event like this. Marketproshows, a travelling group that would visit the Memphis area every couple months in the early 90s. My friends would get together and rent a uhaul van and small trailer. Back then there were no local computer shops to buy from. Great times

  2. MIT used to have a monthly swapfest during the summer. It was stopped last year because of COVID but I went a few times a year for 25 years. Lots of interesting stuff for sale, some vintage, some a bit more modern. There’s usually an Enigma on display and a few years ago had a Gemini test vehicle.

    1. Yeah I never went to the flea at MIT but I would love to at some point in time.

      I have to admit that the VCF East Swapmeet will grow in time and hopefully it’ll be as big as the TCF Swapmeet used to be 10 years ago or more!

      1. Just to be clear VCF East and the swap meet are two different events. VCF East (Vintage Computer Festival East) is our big event with exhibitors, classes, speakers, keynotes, and consignment. The VCF Swap Meet is only just a swap meet. We call it VCF (Vintage Computer Federation) Swap Meet to distinguish between other events. We don’t want people to confuse the two events (Festival vs. swap meet) as they serve different purposes and are two entirely different events.

    1. I remember a few pages that were a photocopy of a photocopy of a …. of the 6502 instruction set. No access to an assembler, entering machine code one byte at a time. Defiantly not something that your typical Apple used of today would do.

      1. I did that! I had to learn machine code before assembly, just due to lack of an assembler. When I finally got one, assembly language was a walk in the park! I hadn’t even heard of C, or any other compiled language back then, but it was thankful for The Black Inman book.

        And yes, school was uphill both ways–in the snow! (Not really.)

  3. If you have a niche, you don’t want to be swamped by “foreign” items for sale. But peripheral sellers help to sustain the event, and bring in a wider audience.

    One local radio club had a venue in the park, there was a roof, but it could be opened up a lot at the sides. But then about twenty years ago, they didn’t get enough people paying for tables, so they had to.move to a cramped indoor space after that.

    The clubs don’t really promote beyond hams. But I’ve always posted about them beyond, pointing out that it’s primarily ham radio, but associated hobbyists might find things of interest. It brings in more buyers, but once they are there, they might find something of interest in ham radio.

  4. And I was there. You, Dan, were indeed? I’m surprised our paths didn’t cross. Buy anything? I’ve got a Magnetic Bubble Memory board I rescued. I dunno about the coming VCF East event not being held, especially since Jeff plans on deciding this summer. They are going to throw another one RSN though.

  5. I attended the event, and it was just fine. Nobody was fussy about whether it was “pure vintage computing” or not, or the relative age of one computer versus another. There wasn’t much interest in last-decade computing. As for the premise that such events ended in the 1990’s? No. no. In the last 15 years, hamfests have been in decline and certainly were not what they once were by volume. And there’s no modern-computer sales events anymore. But hamfests which include computing, have stabilized in recent years to regional / state events of modest size. “ebay” has not replaced such events! And there’s several vintage-computing gatherings a year in the USA; plus local gatherings sponsored by local vendors, private museums, or clubs. Of course all these events were on hold in 2020. They are likely to come back in 2021, as CDC guidelines will not discourage small scale (hundreds) outdoor events in the coming months. Where are these? Check the ARRL Web site for amateur radio hamfests; Web search will find regional events, or events sponsored by private groups.

  6. While I’ve been to ham radio swap meets which cater to a similar crowd, I’ve really missed the computer swap meet. I’m hoping that going forward they continue this event, as well as the normal VCF events.

  7. Hello everyone,
    I’m the main organizer for this event. It is great that Hackaday was around to interview. We have always had a great relationship with them. I would love to have greeted the reporter. I had no idea that he was there.
    Some clarifications and comments:

    * We were very happy that the weather cooperated and it was good weather!

    * We too were very happy to have a gathering in a safer environment (outside with masks). It was a mini reunion of sorts where I met up with people that I see once a year and some as much as 4 years have passed. Nice to see friends and acquaintances.

    * Our first VCF Swap Meet was November 7, 2020. We had done advertising late for that one because we only got permission from the township three weeks before the event. Despite this we had a decent turnout of about 20 vendors and maybe 100 to 150 people buying. We learned a lot from that experience.

    * Our second swap meet on April 24, 2021 we were able to do extensive advertising much earlier and more broadly. This time we also invited Ham Radio, Antique Radio, Antique TVs and general electronic parts. There is a lot of cross interest in these hobbyists, so it only further increases not only vendors, but buyers as well.

    * Everyone has a different definition of “vintage computer”. For some that goal post is anything older than 25 years old. For VCF we set the date as anything before 1995.

    * At this past swap meet we had 3 times the number of vendors, spaces and buyers. We got some extra buyers by serendipity because of a furniture sale across the street by Selective Seconds, a charity organization selling used furniture.

    * Our VCF table was fully setup by 7AM as vendors started coming in.

    * Vintage Computer Festival East is scheduled for October 8, 9, 10. We are hoping that it will be in person. I will make a call by August 8 whether it will stay in-person or go virtual. We will have the usual consignment area. We have lots of great speakers lined up and will be asking for exhibitor registration within the next two weeks. Updates will be here:

    * Vintage Computer Festival West is scheduled for August 7 & 8. The Computer History Museum is scheduled to re-open in July, so we are hoping that conditions permit us to have a full in-person show by that time. Updates will be here:

      1. Thanks Jeffrey! I’m really excited to visit.

        FYI – I made the above comment based on the blog post you linked in your username. Last post communicates April 24th ‘21.

        1. It seems that there is some confusion. VCF East is our Festival that we have once a year. The VCF Swap Meet is a separate event. It seems that some people are conflating the two events. They are separate events. VCF East was originally scheduled for April 2021, but we postponed it to October 2021. We decided to do our swap meet in April *instead* of VCF East. Make sense?

          1. Jeffrey –

            Makes perfect sense. Thanks for clearing this up to someone who’s new to your organization.

            Also – I immensely appreciate that you took the time to reply and follow up. Thank you :)

  8. Damn I wish we had such even here in Chile. The market that had vintage computers has been closed for nearly a year due the virus situation and had less and less used computers and more phone repair and accessory shops sadly.

  9. The regional hamfest and flea were planning this format for May this year in the agricultural fairgrounds, when it’s usually an indoor event in Feb. But I think it has been postponed again, as we’re in lockdown into May.

    I don’t wanna see these type of events devolve into “vendor shows” full of tupperware, leggings and candles, but I like to come across a computer guy and an arduino guy at a ham flea.

    1. At the hamfests here in New Jersey
      there is / was a guy by the name of Jeff G.
      that sold Arduino and raspberry pie stuff, peripherals, programming etc.
      He also sold these at at the computer shows but the hamfest was his niche.
      Unfortunately he moved and is no longer in New Jersey.

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