Tales Of The Bottom-Fisher: A Lesson In Bargains
By Adam Vaughn
As a collector of old radios, I visit antique radio swap-meets looking for nice old radios, and I’m typically adept at this. Some people bring several paychecks worth of money with them to swap-meets in anticipation of spending $200 or more on a single set. However, I typically pay $20 or under and, in nearly-all cases, under $100 for a single set. In fact, some of my best finds have been freebies. How do I do it, you may ask? Here are some of my secrets:
You may be asking, “Do any of these cockamamie principles actually work???” I know for a fact that they do, and I have used them successfully many times. For example, near the end of one swap-meet, I managed to lower the price of a Motorola wooden table radio from $30 down to $20, and got myself a decent performer for a good price. At another, I bought two 1960s AC/DC table radios for $5 apiece. My best swap-meet find so far, though, came from a bargain-basement table. Among the cheaper-looking sets, I spotted an Atwater-Kent model 55 radio chassis with a ratty-looking speaker. The price tag was originally for $70, but had been marked down to $50. I bargained him down to $45 due to some more purchases I had planned, and he agreed, so I loaded the set into my car. It was only after purchasing it that I noticed that, wonder of all wonders, the expensive 45 tubes (often sought-after for expensive amplifiers by audiophiles) were still present! I was impressed.
- Bring minimal cash. Some people bring several hundred dollars with them to swap-meets, and typically leave with much less than that. On the other hand, I myself usually bring a maximum of $100 to a meet, and often leave with $20 or more, after purchasing a few sets. If you bring a small amount of money, it makes bargaining with the seller more-realistic. No seller wants to have someone lower their price by several factors, then whip out a $100 bill and ask for change.
- Analyze sellers carefully before buying. Not all sellers are alike. Some charge reasonable prices for the radios they sell, while others expect exorbitant sums of money for everything they have, as if it were gold-plated. The latter sellers are good for those who have lots of cash to spend, but they’re also the ones who have the same sets from meet to meet. There is a rare third breed of sellers, the Crazy Eddie (or Madman Muntz, depending on your age) type. These sellers have their sets, which are usually dirty and likely nonworking, priced at bargain-basement levels. The sets they sell are often not worth the solder they were put together with, but keep an eye out, for there are occasionally diamonds in the rough.
- Keep low expectations. Don’t expect to find a Zenith Walton’s set for under $100 (or under $1,000, for that matter). Most $20 and under radios tend to have plastic cases, and use printed circuit boards. Though this may seem dismal, they are useful as tools to learn how to work on the bigger (and more-expensive) sets. For $40 and under, some wood comes into view. Sets by lesser-known brands like Coronado or Silvertone usually run into this price range. For under $100, low-to-mid-end Zeniths and Philcos are covered.
- Wait until the end of the swap-meet. While there’s a saying that “the early bird gets the worm,” I have another one: “the late bird gets the deal.” Near the end of a swap-meet, sellers are not looking forward to hauling their unsold sets back to their vehicles, so they are often willing to lower their prices for a quick sale. This is when the $20 sets really begin to appear from the woodwork. When the tables begin to clear off, patience truly turns out to be a virtue.
- Value books are relatively-meaningless. A collector’s guide can be a good way to get a general idea of how much a set is worth, but it shouldn’t really define how much a set is worth. To the price-savvy buyer, it doesn’t matter how much a set is worth on paper, it matters how much a set is worth to them. Only offer what you think it’s worth, but keep a slight margin to try and make up for up-haggling by the seller. If they won’t budge within the realm of what you’re willing to pay, walk away. Perhaps they will be willing to lower their price later on, but if not, you have saved money to spend on the next interesting radio which comes along. There is always another one out there.
- Let people know what you collect. I have had many people give me radios because they know that I collect them, and they happen to have an old set lying around gathering dust, and they wish to get rid of it. Better to give it to someone who cares about them rather than simply throwing it away.
As far as freebies go, I have several good stories for this category. A family friend who found out about my liking for antique radios, told me that he had an old shortwave radio that I could have. It turned out to be a Zenith Trans-Oceanic model B600 in OK condition, which I restored into a decent performer. Another time, a different family friend saw me hauling the B-600 around, and gave me an Automatic Radio “Tom Thumb” tube portable radio they had found in the basement of their newly-purchased home. But my best freebie find of all was over three years in the making. During my junior year at a technical high school, I discovered three old military radios lurking in the back room of the electronics shop. Among the three was an R-390A/URR (commonly regarded as one of the best tube shortwave receivers ever designed), and an R-392/URR (the portable version of the R-390/URR, and almost as highly-regarded). I asked about them, but they weren’t willing to relinquish them, or even let me test them (saying simply “they don’t work“). Flash forward to about three years later, when the school was being renovated, and I had graduated two years before. I realized that the sets might get thrown away if I didn’t act quickly, so I visited the shop I had once called home, and my old instructor soon remarked, “Are you here to haul these old radios away?” For the price of a gallon of gas, and the slight wear on my 1991 Dodge Spirit, I was now the proud owner of two of the best shortwave receivers ever to be designed! After minor restoration work, the R-390A quickly became the best radio I had ever owned.
To sum it all up, no matter how dismal things look, good deals are still out there for people willing to look, and to be smart shoppers. You don’t have to use eBay to find a good radio, just a brain and a small amount of cash. With a bit of luck and good haggling skills, you too may very well end up with the radio you’ve always wanted (or at least something well worth the price).
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