The great American garage sale

Thanks to Ebay, "Antiques Roadshow" and their ilk, cleaning out the attic is now a national sport.

Published June 1, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Prosperous nations find a lot of things to spend their money on -- pyramids, ziggurats, spices, silks, opium.
But it's fair to say that, until now, used
shoe horns were not high on the list. Yet today our historic economic boom is looking like a
nationwide garage sale, with consumers patronizing auction sites, hobbyists' magazines and TV antiques and crafts shows to turn themselves into merchants and convert their free minutes into cash. In 1997, the clichi went, you were a brand; in 1999, you're the whole damn store.

People have always collected and traded; what's different today is the degree of intensity and
mercantilism. Everything -- Grandma's punch bowl, the kids' Furbies -- is now a potential profit source;
everyone either is a seller or ought to be thinking damn hard about it. When "The Phantom Menace" came out, for instance, collecting experts advised not to expect a big payoff from saving Darth Maul figurines in the original packages -- because everybody else has already had the same idea. Twenty years ago, relatively few people kept unopened Star Wars toys; today, why else would you buy one? (Think how many fools bought Pet
Rocks and actually opened the boxes!)

A main beneficiary and supporter of this "every man his own thrift shop" mentality is Ebay, the wildly successful online auctioneer connecting shoppers with purveyors of finer Happy Meal toys worldwide. Sure, Ebay's success owes much to its ingenious e-sales model. But you
shouldn't discount the effects of old-media buzz, either.

High-profile Ebay auctions of items like Mark McGwire home-run baseballs grabbed headlines and drew heavy traffic from rubberneckers. On May 22, MTV aired "Cool Crap," a special
centered on an Ebay auction of music relics (a Geri Halliwell self-portrait, an appearance on "Total Request
Live"). The show amounted to a giant commercial: It's a blast to blow your savings on the Internet! Likewise, for months Rosie O'Donnell has peddled celebrity-signed goods on Ebay for charity (using the site, despite her high-profile gun-control preaching, well before it announced a ban on weapons sales earlier this year). People magazine and other outlets have arranged similar synergistic auctions. It's a win-win-win: The
sponsor looks good, needy kids get paid and Ebay's market cap goes up another gazillion dollars.

In this feedback loop of mutual flackery, Ebay uses the TV shows' reach and the shows use Ebay's coolness
factor, which is enhanced with each plug. Ebay's greatest asset is making its name synonymous with
"auction" even as Amazon and others horn in on its business; a Business Week cover story
depicts the coming battle between Amazon's fixed-pricing model and Ebay's fluctuating "dynamic pricing." (A wonderful coinage, incidentally: Expect to hear it embraced by gas-station owners come the next Middle East crisis, as they dynamically up their pump prices by 50 percent.)

The site's had help from journalists too, who went nuts for Ebay early on. William Gibson penned
the seminal love letter to the site in Wired early this year. Even the most thoughtful Ebay write-ups, like James Gleick's in a recent New Yorker, usually include first-person tales of auction action. You won't believe
this weird thing I bought on Ebay! And there's plenty more where that came from! People will sell
anything! I'm addicted! Hooked! Me, a level-headed writer! "Man, is it fun," gushed NPR's Rich Dean, recounting the swell time he had dropping $1,700 on a Gretsch hollow-body guitar. "It's a game for the buyers and the sellers."

In effect, Ebay has become a commerce and entertainment site; the company understands --
-- after numerous others have failed to lure people to Web soap operas, hypertext fiction and push technology -- that the true indigenous online entertainment genre is
commerce. "It's a game": Sears, Roebuck in their dreams never scored a plug like this. NPR's Dean is exactly right; by adopting an auction model, Ebay inherited a whole lexicon in which you don't buy, you win. And, as proven by its high-traffic baseball memorabilia auctions and tie-ins like "Cool Crap," in today's mercantile culture you can gather a sizable crowd just to watch.

And it's not just Ebay junkies and Furby worshippers who are playing. Just when you forget why the
government founded the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, along comes a program like "Antiques
Roadshow" to remind you: the great masses of a functioning democracy need a reliable source of appraisals for their Chippendale furniture.

PBS's highest-rated weekly show brings a traveling group of collectibles experts from town to town,
where contestants line up for hours to haul in Great Grandpa's infantry doodads, the family silverware and
their Augustus Saint-Gaudens engravings for on-the-spot valuations. I say "contestants" because there's
really nothing better to call them. Though it poses as an informational program, "Roadshow" is really the
perfect game show for the public TV crowd. Participants aren't rewarded for dumb luck, as in a lottery,
Daily Jumble-level word-sleuthing, as on "Wheel of Fortune," or autodidacticism, as on "Jeopardy!"
They're rewarded for their Merchant-Ivorized good taste and their heritage. Whatever "Roadshow" teaches
about crafts or history, above all it teaches, with hard numbers, the value of coming from good people.

Certainly there's plenty to learn here about turn-of-the-century carnival glass and Civil War letters (Iowans are worth more, owing to a dearth of literate Midwesterners in the 1800s). But the producers know what we really care about are the cash estimates, delivered with a Wink Martindale warm-up ("Nancy ... do you have any idea what this piece is worth?") as the contestants absorb their five-figure windfalls with tight-lipped smiles and reserved oh-my-goodnesses -- because, of course, our sort of people don't make unseemly displays like the plebeians on "The Price Is Right."

And that's why "Roadshow" is one of the most entertaining -- and, yes, addictive -- programs on TV: it
appeals to our own basest materialism and yet lets us look down on that same materialism in its
contestants. (Which also explains the fascination of the rare segments where experts detail, exhaustively,
why an item is a fake, sometimes debunking generations-old family histories in the process.)

But if the economy's really spewing silver like a rigged slot machine, why are we pricing up our
possessions as if we were wheelbarrow-pushers in Weimar Germany? Maybe it's actually a perverse
result of that boom, or at least its hype. In New York magazine, Nathaniel Wice recently wrote about Wit Capital, an online broker that allows small
investors to buy IPOs at the initial offering price (sometimes); he boasted about buying at $17 and flipping it at $97. At this juncture in history, folks can make 600 percent profits in a day not through work or particular insight but simply by having a broker or computer and a sufficient stake. Is this a strong economy? You betcha! If it weren't, there'd be a big pile of these folks' heads rotting in Battery Park right about now.

In a bad economy, everybody has an excuse not to get rich. But in a strong one, you can feel poor even if
you're not. Every glance at the business section is a reproof, every minute not spent e-trading an
opportunity loss. If only we had bought Amazon in 1997, we think -- if only we had bought Amazon in
November. If only, if only. And so we start to see everything we have for its market value. If only
Grandma hadn't bought such crappy furniture. If only I hadn't played with that original Boba
Thus is born a new national pastime, a new favorite sport. And you'll never catch us bitching
about the salaries of the players.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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