REcollecting, Part One
by Jeff Cooper

Most of you DP readers collect for the Atari 2600, and many of you have been at it for years. Question: what would it be like if you lost everything and had to start your 2600 collection all over again from scratch? Assuming you couldn't run out and just buy everything, would it be possible to come up with a good collection again? How does collecting today differ from, say, six years ago? Over the last year or so, I found out.

Fourteen months ago my 2600 collection consisted of zero. A bunch of dusty shelves. A pile of empty cart holders. I had sold my entire 2600 collection a few months earlier. The collection consisted of around 500 different carts (a handful of PAL releases and a handful of label variations thrown in); something like 325 were boxed. It had taken me over six years to put it all together, and I thought it was among the better collections around. I wrote a lengthy apologia for DP explaining my decision to sell, pointing out that I'd reached a point where the rares I needed were prohibitively expensive and I couldn't trade for them. And I pointed out that the 2600 never was my "real" nostalgic system, etc. But, in hindsight, the fact is that I needed the money to pay off a bunch of medical bills (yeah, yeah, I know, wah wah wah).

Well the good news is that I am more or less back. With gems like an original Quadrun, a boxed Q*Bert's Qubes, Sword of Saros, Survival Island, Glib, and a mint in box--er--styrofoam Tooth Protectors recently coming in, I am edging very close to 500 carts again and have surpassed 300 boxes. Admittedly, I'm still two or three megarares away from where I was. I'll never see another Cubicolor again. And my new box collection contains significantly fewer rares than my original one. But if you had told me that in a little over a year I'd be able to put together a collection that approached the old one, I'd have recommended that you put yourself out to pasture.

What‘s different about collecting today?

When starting over late in 1997, I faced a fundamentally different scenario, I think, relative to what I faced when I began collecting late in 1990. For the most part, I put my first collection together through the "big three": buying, trading, and flea-marketing. Some huge obstacles exist today in all three of these areas. The obstacles are so big that, when I began re-collecting again, I didn't expect a whole lot of success.

The biggest change and most obvious obstacle to collecting today is the money factor, which has changed everything, including the nature of both buying and trading. In the "early days," it was not difficult to purchase rarities for next to nothing, even from people who knew exactly what they had. I recall buying a Crazy Climber from a collector for $30. A perfect mint boxed Miner 2049er Vol. 2 cost me all of $13 from someone else. A brand new boxed Halloween cost me a little less. I remember one collector selling me a sealed Boing! for $20, while another sold me around sixty mint boxes, including some great rares, for a buck a piece. Nowadays a Crazy Climber will routinely bring at least $125, Halloween often goes for $100, and even common trash that I used to spit at, like a Star Wars Jedi Arena, can bring $30, if boxed. Not only do 2600 games cost much more but, with two kids added to the equation, I've got less money to spend on the hobby.

Trading has changed a whole lot, too. In general, hobbyists are much more sophisticated and knowledgeable today. In the days before price guides and scarcity guides, trading was almost comical. Early on, I had no idea what I was doing, nor did the people I was trading with. I remember trading a king's ransom worth of Vectrex rares for a 2600 Fathom. But that same guy traded me a Chase the Chuckwagon for seven carts, only one of which was somewhat rare. Trading was just different: you had doubles, the other guy had doubles, so you filled some holes in his collection and he filled some holes in yours. People were also willing to trade across systems, because it was just as important to fill a slot in your Colecovision collection as it was to fill one in your 2600 collection. Few people today will trade you a really rare 2600 cart for a really rare Colecovision cart, because everyone knows that 2600 carts are "worth more." But in the olden days of 1992, people would routinely trade me rare 2600 carts – even up - for rare CV carts. Some people have a lot of trouble coming to grips with the fact that it no longer works this way. The nerds in the usenet groups constantly remind us that "collecting should be all about the love of collecting and the love of the games, and 'value' shouldn't enter into it!" Nerdo reality check: whether it should be that way or not the rules have changed. If you wanna trade your 2600 Q*Bert's Qubes for a better-playing CV Q*Bert's Qubes, you should have no trouble at all finding a taker.

That brings us to the third of the great triumvirate, flea-marketing. Despite the whining, whelping, and, at times, the hysterical fulminating of the anti-price guide faction, I have not found that the dreaded money factor has influenced flea markets or thrift stores at all. When I find 2600 carts at flea markets, they still run me from $1 to $3 a piece, just as they did six years ago. But that's not to suggest that there has been little change at flea markets. To the contrary, I find it almost impossible to find good stuff "in the wild," these days, especially relative to what it was like in 1991 and 1992.

Flea-marketing and thrifting used to be the part of collecting I enjoyed most. I got seriously into collecting in the spring of 1991, in fact, when I bought a pile of rare sealed 2600 games at a flea market from a guy named Harry, who had bought out a Wal-Mart after the crash. I'll never forget later finding a Glib at another flea market for $5. I offered the guy $4. He explained that Glib was "one of them hard to find games," and stuck fast at $5. Sensing that I was about to storm away in a tantrum (I always expect flea market people to negotiate a little), my future wife gave me a swift elbow to the ribs. I paid the five bucks. Anyway, in addition to the Glib, most of my original Pandas, just about all of my Zimag games, a lot of Xonox, a ton of lesser rares, and a good percentage of my boxes came from flea markets, pawn shops, and thrift stores. At one point I had a collection of duplicates that would make for a nice primary collection today; I got most of the stuff at flea markets and used it to trade for more and more 2600 rares.

Ah for the good old days. Around here pawn shops no longer carry any classic games. And flea markets? Well, once in a great while I'll come up with something like a Polaris, and it's still pretty easy to find stuff like Alien and Eggomania. But flea markets have dried up almost completely, and thrift stores are even worse. Either people don't bother bringing classic games to flea markets, assuming that no one would want them, or the good stuff has found its way into the hands of other collectors. But never say never, and never think that flea markets are a complete waste of time. Three months ago I found a flea market dealer with a couple of big boxes of 2600 games, from which I extracted a Halloween, Shuttle Orbiter, Miner 2049er Vol. 2, a couple of Pandas, four different Tigervision games, and about twenty other decent carts--for a buck a piece. But note well: this was the first and only major flea market find, however, in three long years. I've thrown up a lot of flea market "air balls" in between.

These observations sound sort of doom-and-gloom. But they are not. I've discovered that it was possible to put together a big collection again, and it was done without primarily relying upon money. Details next time.

CLICK HERE to read part TWO

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Last updated: Tuesday, February 13, 2007 05:58 PM