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September 2011: Where Are All the Vintage Pens, Again?

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • I started buying and selling on eBay in 1998. What a great place it was, an Internet garage sale hooking me — some guy in the tiny burg of Rowley, Mass., where I lived at the time — up with some guy in Backhoe, Idaho, to sell something or other.

I’ve written columns on sports memorabilia selling on eBay since the late 1990s — and I still do — and I thought I’d seen everything. Every dirty seller trick, eBay commercializing every click. But this whole episode left me flat-out disgusted. Extra Fine Points

It was easy, pre-PayPal. Pay eBay a little listing fee and final value commission, and everyone made a couple bucks. Since then, eBay has upped its fees, bought Paypal, and has adjusted its policies so that it really only makes sense for power sellers. New policy changes launched in 2008 and recently tightened further make that five-star feedback rating even more profitable to eBay.

$$$$At the heart of it is “detailed seller ratings,” which to bidders look pretty innocent. For instance: If you think the shipping was “reasonable” and you rate the seller 4 out of 5, do you think that seller should be penalized and forced to pay eBay higher final value fees? That’s what happens if a seller doesn’t have perfect ratings, even though the “3” rating to most people would seem “Average,” and less-than-reasonable would seem to be a “1” or “2.” Nope. If bidders aren’t feeding back 5’s across the board, you’re giving eBay more money out of the seller’s pocket. The site requires pristine feedback, not just “really good.” But they don’t tell us bidders that. They’ve basically devalued the whole detailed feedback process, because there are no shades of gray.

As someone who works with words, all day every day, I think that’s deceptive. I had no idea what was going on until I gave a seller a “1” on the item description field, when I was dissatisfied with an item I bought recently. The rest of the detailed feedback form I gave him 5’s, he earned it, it was a perfect transaction even though the item had a couple words wrong that would have probably made me not bid on it had I known — and I was being extraordinarily picky, it was details about the item itself; the seller hadn’t fibbed about its condition or anything “big” like that.

RicvhardsPens pageEven though it’s anonymous, the seller figured out it was me who did it. He sent me a somewhat explosive email about it, which typically would make me less receptive to his argument. It turns out, I ended up siding with him, and he had reason to be steamed. And I was, too. I didn’t know I was literally taking money out of his pocket and feeding it to the eBay machine. Feedback used to be about a seller reputation-building among buyers, not a monetized process building more dividends for eBay shareholders and fat bonuses for their executives.

So, since the eBay site says that “Buyers can revise Feedback they’ve left for sellers in the case of a mistake” on this page, I decided to take them up on it. I called eBay customer service and argued to change that “1” to a “5” because I indeed made a mistake. I argued until I was blue in the face. Customer service was stunned; here I’d left positive feedback and I wanted to change it to more positive. Surprise! They have no policy for that. They wouldn’t do it, although it took 20-plus minutes of conference-room huddles and putting me on hold to figure that out. Before I hung up, I did register my feedback on eBay’s feedback process with eBay, I think the word “pathetic” and “dishonest” was used. They definitely got one star, too.

Gopens pageI’ve written columns on sports memorabilia selling on eBay since the late 1990s — and I still do — and I thought I’d seen everything. Every dirty seller trick, eBay commercializing every click. But this whole episode left me flat-out disgusted. My only recourse was to send the seller a sympathetic, apologetic note. It made him happy, for a minute or so.

Needless to say, I quit selling on eBay long ago, and now I’m staying away from buying, mostly. The site’s morphed from a cool, earthy-crunchy California-based online rummage sale to a mafia-style shakedown. Power sellers even get better search results placement than the average fountain pen collector looking to sell a few pieces, so even if I did sell pens on eBay and a potential bidder was looking for a pen just like mine, other sellers would take precedence in the search page.

While I only have anecdotal evidence to support this — and there certainly remains a large selection of vintage pens on eBay — it’s my suspicion that many small vintage pen sellers have also quit. But there’s still vintage pens out there waiting for us to purchase. The question is, where are sellers going?

Etsy pageThe answer is: They’ve scattered to all corners of the Web. Dealers like Richard here and Gary Lehrer and Sam Fiorella go direct by setting up their own sites. Another site is Etsy, which as I recall started out as a set of Web storefronts for artists and crafter types to sell their handiwork but has grown to include collectibles. In fact, the idea for this column started when a friend sent me to Etsy and I looked at her jewelry and then searched on fountain pens and was pretty impressed by the selection. Some good deals can be had — but make sure you’re searching in the “vintage” category, or nothing comes up in the results page.

As I’ve found in a couple of other categories of collectibles and general stuff (such as motorcycles, and I actually purchased one on a site like this) are enthusiast boards. Go figure: Hobbyists of many interests first found each other on the Internet back in the 1990s via bulletin boards and newsgroups, many of which established adjunct swap shops or classifieds. eBay and other competing auction sites (there were hundreds of startups a decade ago) quickly made these obsolete.

PCA pageeBay’s squeezing out of low-volume sellers through increasingly stringent requirements (such as: Your winning bidder may not pay for a vintage pen you sold him with a check or money order — it’s Paypal or a few competitors only such as Moneybookers) has made these hobbyist trading boards great places to look for pens once again. The two we’re most familiar with are Pentrace and Fountain Pen Network, and I’m sure there are more.

It’s ironic, how technology and the ease of posting things for sale on the Web has advanced so far, so quickly since eBay started out yet these original, old-skool Internet venues have re-emerged as viable alternatives. It’s made scouring the Web for vintage pen deals fun again, not just a few search terms at eBay.

Go surf —when was the last time you used that word? — and have fun. It feels almost like the old days, pre-eBay, when antique shops weren’t picked clean of fountain pens and the ones that were left were marked up three-four times their actual value because the shop’s owner saw a mint-stickered one just like it sell on eBay. Except now, you’re probably doing it on a phone or iPad and not a Pentium laptop like you were back the last time you used the word “surf.”

cover Further Reading: Titanium eBay, 2nd Edition: A Tactical Guide to Becoming a Millionaire Powerseller, by Skip McGrath
Hey, wanna get rich? Learn how from Skip McGrath. Or not. I’ve actually interviewed Skip, he’s a pretty smart cookie. Not smart enough to make me a millionaire, or even a brass Powerseller for that matter, but smart nonetheless.

Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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