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.
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.