Reverse Shoplifting

Engineers love gadgets. Sometimes, we even anthropomorphize them a bit and get attached to pieces of vintage gear that we don’t really use anymore. The lure of the New And Shiny is strong, yes, but there’s something about the glow of vacuum tubes, too.

For many of us, though, it’s somehow okay if we know that a beloved piece of gear — or even just a nostalgic example of 1980s-era DIP memory — is going to a good home. It’s easier to part with a vintage Tektronix ‘scope if it means that a new electronics hobbyist will be able to use it to see the angry pixies in the wires. At least it’s not going into the trash.

Reusing vintage gear is what hamfests are all about. Even if you’ve been in the hobby for decades, a good hamfest will mean you’ll see at least one piece of gear that takes you a moment to identify — and probably, several new variations on tools you didn’t know existed. Field strength meters powered by the radio signals they monitor. Analog computers, designed to calculate how much feed to give your dairy cattle (I really hope that’s still in a box around here somewhere). Hopefully-declassified military surplus gear. It’s all fascinating.

The downside is that, for most people, space is limited. At some point, cubic-meters-in must not exceed cubic-meters-out. Hamfests provide the best way to rehome surplus gear — but sometimes, nobody is looking for the particular boat anchors that you brought to offload. After a few trips back and forth, you wish they weren’t taking up space — but you just don’t have the heart to put that vintage HP signal generator in the trash. What To Do?

The solution — Reverse Shoplifting — is one of the coolest, if somewhat dubious, Chaotic Good traditions I’ve come across. In the course of wandering around a hamfest, it’s not unusual to see an interesting item for sale and want to take a closer look. (That’s why you’re there in the first place, after all!) So you set down the random piece of gear you were ostensibly carrying back to your car after having purchased it, and take a look at what the seller has on the table. Maybe you even buy it. After all, it got your attention.

In the confusion, it’s not unheard of to forget the item you were originally carrying, and absentmindedly wander off, leaving it there. Perhaps this is the Universe’s way of telling you that your boat anchor had found its new owner. Perhaps entropy will decrease a tiny bit more slowly when a piece of gear gets another shot at usefulness instead of heading to a landfill.

Or maybe, you think to yourself as you slip away as nonchalantly but quickly as you can, you’ll actually have room in the car for that antenna tower the guy in the cube van was selling.

This post is dedicated to the memory of my Elmer: Frank H. Gentges AK4R/K0BRA.
Thanks for teaching me not just the nuts and bolts, but the lore, too.

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