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Shopping for Macs at Thrift Stores


If you're like me and don't feel the need to have the latest-and-greatest Mac equipment, the best thing you can do for your Mac and your wallet is shop at thrift stores. It's a crap shoot, but on a good day you may walk out with more than you expected. There are a variety of stores to select from, including the Salvation Army, The Goodwill, American Thrift Centers, and my personal favorite: The Red, White and Blue thrift store. These stores are all located in and around Pittsburgh. Of course, the stores in your location may vary.

I first got into the habit of shopping at thrift stores in the mid- to late-90's. If I saw a good deal on a piece of gear that I couldn't use, I'd buy it and sell it on eBay for a profit. Here's a little breakdown of some treasures I've found:

  • Powermac 6115CD: This old beige pizza box was fully working and even included an aftermarket 2GB hard drive. My PC friend envied me for such a great find - a working computer that could connect to the internet for a measly $10! Once I set it up at home I discovered that it was used in a home-based business. You wouldn't believe the content I found in the cache folder of the browser.
  • Mac OS X Server: This software package was picked up for only $5. Upon seeing the price tag, I asked a sales associate if it was mispriced, but the individual informed me it was indeed $5. I took it home and studied the documentation as it was too powerful to be used on my Power Mac 7300/200 at the time. I put it on eBay for $10, and the highest bid ended up being $75 with no reserve!
  • Mac Classic: I used to own one of these in 1993, and I had fun messing around with it again. I think I purchased this for $20. It also included a heavy-duty padded bag, a Stylewriter Printer and a heavy-duty bag for the printer as well. I ended up giving it away to a computer-illiterate friend, but not before packing it with helpful applications and video games.
  • Logitech Wireless Keyboard: $5.95 bought me the wireless keyboard that I'm using to type this article. It has buttons above the F-keys for e-mail, volume control, and more, plus it even has the open Apple keys next to the spacebar, so there was no configuration needed. Best of all, it came with the USB transmitter, and it worked immediately even with the existing batteries still in the keyboard.

So how do you find stuff like this? As I mentioned before, it sometimes involves being at the right place at the right time, but that's only half of it. Some stores don't know what they're selling (this could be both a positive and a negative). One store wanted $50 for a Mac Classic, and another thrift store asked $5 for Mac OS X server. If you visit different thrift stores periodically, you'll start to get a feel for the stores. Which ones get the equipment and have the gear priced right? In my opinion, The Goodwill and Salvation Army stores do not have a vast amount of used computers and electronic gear available to the masses. Compared to The Red, White, and Blue, those stores are exceptionally clean, but I'll take choice over tidiness any day.

Even if you find something, how do you know if it's worth buying? And even if you do buy it, how do you determine if it's worth keeping or selling? Whether it's a printer, computer, monitor or other peripheral, ask yourself if you can use the machine as a backup. Can it be used for spare parts? Can it can be fixed and donated to someone? Or will it make an interesting custom modification project?

Being that some thrift stores charge varying prices for the same equipment, you can use your best judgement or check eBay. The way to check eBay's prices are to log in to eBay, go to the site map, click the link for completed auctions, type in the description of the piece in question, select the checkbox that reads "Search Completed Listings Only," then hit the Return key to get the list of the items. The listings in green show that they were sold while the ones in red denote that the items were unsold.

When I hit the thrift stores, I bring my laptop with me. Using the laptop allows me to search for info relating to a particular product. I either go to a Mac site that has specs on older products and save the pages to the hard drive so I can refer to them later (try EveryMac), or use a program that lists the specs on various Mac products. This way I won't be stuck buying a PowerMac 7200 only to research it later and discover that I can't upgrade the processor. (That was before the Sonnet upgrade, of course.) Having a laptop at your disposal while shopping can help you avoid certain products. A simple notepad with the info written down works just as well, though.

Once you come across a piece of gear, it's important to inspect it carefully. Look for signs of misuse, such as traces of liquid on the case, noticeable chips or scratches, or missing pieces that are not easily found. Most thrift stores that I'm aware of have an "All Sales Final" policy, so be sure that the gear you're interested in works or doesn't require major work in order to be presentable. My favorite thrift store has outlets that allow you to connect the equipment and test it ahead of time, but even then, you'll still be out of luck when it comes to testing some items, such as printers. The same goes for Macs without hard drives, but if you've got a monitor to hook it up to, you can check for the flashing floppy disk.

With monitors, keep in mind that the older Mac style ports are longer than a standard VGA port. So be sure to bring with you a Mac-to-VGA style adapter and an extra power cord or two. If you find external hard drives, make sure that they'll work with your current Mac or an older Mac if you decide to purchase one. Just to give you an example of this, I found a LaCie Joule hard drive system with two disks inside. It came in handy, but it had the older 50-pin Centronics-style adapter. Luckily, I had the right cable to attach it to my Mac, and the drives worked perfectly.

So, the next time you're out and about, hit a flea market, thrift store, or swap meet. Eventually you're bound to come across something that will work with your Mac. Happy hunting!



Meet Your Macinstructor

Eric Buczynski says it all started with the Apple II in grade school. Years later, he moved on to a Performa 6360 and then PowerMac G4s. He's still interested in emulation, HTML, and icon design, but these days his creativity goes mostly to Mac hardware hacking and customization.


 
                          





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