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eBay: The ultimate time machine

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on May 6, 2005
(Issue 2318, It's Everywhere You Want to Be)

As I've mentioned here before, I collect reel to reel tapes – original-issue albums on r2r, actually; not so much blank tapes as those issues by the record companies back in the day. Lounge music and jazz – Martin Denny and Count Basie and a lot of stuff in-between.

That would be a tough hobby if it weren't for eBay. I'd be perusing classified ads in Goldmine, spending lots of time in thrift stores and used record shops hoping for the odd r2r tape to show up.

But in the age of eBay, I'm able to peruse exactly those albums I want – not just what happens to show up.

Generally, there are more than 1,000 items listed in eBay's reel to reel section – which means that not every album ever issues on r2r is there, but there's always a good chance something I want is listed.

Another recent experience got me to thinking, though, how eBay is in a way a time machine: That no matter how vague a childhood memory of a particular toy or other item is, you can probably find it on eBay.

My grandmother's lamp

What brought this on was a dream I had a few months ago that was set in my grandmother's house in Ohio. In her house (and my dream) was a really cool mid-century lamp with a stretched parchment-style lampshade.

In the days after this dream, I decided to find out what that style of lampshade was called. They don't make them anymore, but I stuck my head in a lamp shop on Grand in Escondido – to no avail. The owner remembered those shades from my description, but had no idea what they were called. They I tried a couple antique stores along Grand – and found one with several of those types of shade! But none of the staff knew what they were called.

Then I tried eBay – but with thousands of lampshades and lamps in their listings, I realized again that I needed to know what this type of shade was called so I could narrow the search.

Finally, I struck gold when I tried a high-end lamp store in Carlsbad that had a new lamp with the same type of shade in the window. "Parchment shade" I was told (score one for the non-Internet economy!), and this search on eBay brought up several hits.

Including, as it turned out, a lampshade identical to the one my grandmother had.

It also turned out that other sellers listed these lampshades as fiberglass – but viewing the photos of them was like going back in time. I was in Eames heaven, an online showroom of space-age mid-century modern furnishings. Found a very cool Danish floor lamp to go with the shade, too.

Zeroids and Hoppin' Poppies

But it's not just once-popular furnishings that can jog the memory on eBay.

When I was in second or third grade, I had a really good friend a block or so away named Tim. His parents divorced, sold the house and I never saw him again after fourth grade, but I still remember playing with these very cool robots he had in his basement. They had tank treads for mobility, and various tools that plugged into the ends of their arms.

Took me a awhile of searching for "robots" in the vintage toy section of eBay to bring up several of these Zeroids. Turns out that if Tim and I had foregone playing with them and had instead kept them new in packaging, we could probably retire. Expensive little things nowadays.

But just seeing those pictures after, what, 35 years took me right back to that basement in Ohio.

So did seeing the box for Poppin' Hoppies – a game my sister got for her 5th birthday that we played forever. And Battling Tops and Rock-em Sock-em Robots, games my cousins had but I didn't.

Even old clothes

I've also found some neat old men's hats on eBay: a couple of porkpie hats that look good with my vintage dinner jackets. While I didn't buy the dinner jackets on eBay (San Diego is blessed with several outstanding vintage clothing stores), if one is partial to Rat Pack chic, eBay is a good place to find that speckled tweed jacket you've always wanted.

But whatever it is that's stuck in gray in your memory, a few minutes on eBay is likely to restore it to its full Technicolor glory.