I have this obsession with flea markets.
You’ve probably been to one or to yourself. You may even be a frequent shopper, hitting flea markets a couple of times each month. Odds are, if you have that level of interest, you’re probably there for bargains on things like antiques and tools.
I go for that kind of thing, too. I like finding a good deal on something useful. In fact, the majority of tools I own have come from the flea market, and generally at this-is-probably-stolen prices.
I have been known to buy artful little decorative pieces, like a little brass telescope, a couple of vintage film projects, and even an old Underwood typewriter that weighs more than the desk it’s sitting on. More often, though, my flea market dollars go towards old technology.
I’m going for things that still have a use today, and you’d be surprised how big a cache that is. For instance, many people don’t realize that 20-year-old video production equipment is often just as good as brand new production equipment. Cameras have improved quite a bit over 20 years, but lights, light stands, tripods, and even studio-grade video monitors are pretty much the same as they’ve ever been.
I usually go to the flea markets with my friend Bob, and between the two of us we have built a couple of pro-quality, highly competitive production studios that can produce content on just about any media you’ve ever heard of, and quite a few you haven’t. We can play, record, and duplicate just about anything. We can produce cinema-quality graphics, video, music, and voice recording. And we do it all on equipment that is well “past its prime.”
There is something kind of awesome about putting “obsolete tech” back to work in a professional setting.
I was thinking about this yesterday as Bob and I trudged through the flea markets on a rare Houston day of both cool and dry weather. Halfway through the day, Bob had already nabbed a spectrum analyzer and a Roland US-25EX audio capture device. I had nabbed a Manfrotto light stand and a Rode on-camera microphone (not to mention an awesome angle grinder, a new power supply for my Wii, and a set of golf clubs for a friend). If we had bought these things at full retail, we’d easily pay hundreds of dollars, possibly thousands. Our output? Less than a hundred for everything. And it all works exactly the same as the full-price stuff.
As we pushed our way through the thick crowds, dodging baby strollers and vendors selling knock-off DVDs, I caught a glimpse of a guy soldering a component onto the circuit board of a stereo amplifier. I paused for a moment to watch, and noticed that he had quite a workbench there at the end of his rented stall. He had a pickup truck, with a camper shell, backed up to his space, and inside was a well-organized collection of tools, parts, and test equipment. This guy was an electronics repair shop on wheels.
I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to interview him. But the crowd was so thick, and my purpose for being there was a little more consumerish. Still, it was definitely an image that stuck with me, and I’ll be returning soon just to get an interview with him (or someone like him).
If you’ve ever read “Makers,” by Corey Doctorow, then you may have a really good idea of what finding something like this at a flea market is like. In Doctorow’s book, a couple of genius engineer types, obsessed with tinkering and inventing, end up surrounded by a growing shanty town. They build the things that they think are cool, and soon inspire the world in a maker movement that the author calls “New Work.” Things like 3D printers and repurposed electronics become ubiquitous. The world becomes a better place, where anything is possible because two guys liked to tinker, and weren’t picky about their immediate environment. No need for labs and smocks and white, static-guard walls. These guys did their best work among piles of junk and hundreds of street vendors hawking all kinds of wares.
By the way, I’ve given only a really light summary of the story in “Makers.” If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. If there’s any part of you that likes the idea of building, creating, or open source, you’ll absolutely love this book.)
What hit me as I watched this guy soldering in the middle of the flea market was that Doctorow’s vision wasn’t that far off of the mark. In fact, everything he writes about is possible, right here and now. The maker movement is upon us.
You wouldn’t think that the “next big thing” in technology would be born among flimsy makeshift tables made of two-by-fours and plywood, or among stacks of discarded VCRs and broken Transformers toys. But there it is, hiding in plain site.
Something Bob and I comment on more and more frequently is the fact that technology and gizmos we would have sawed our left arms off for just five or six years ago are now so common as to be invisible. Flat-panel TVs, small LCS displays, netbook computers, touch-screen PDAs and media players, marine band radios, and, yes, pro-level audio and video equipment can be yours for cash on the table, and usually a lot less than retail.
In “Makers,” the protagonists have found new uses for old technology because, frankly, there’s so damn much of it. People tend to get creative when they have a lot of one resource but not enough of another. So the flea market is full of innovations that no one outside would ever have thought of. It’s only a matter of time before someone realizes they can take one of those innovations and make millions on it.
This being the Year of the Maker, I’m happy to discover that I can track a maker movement right in the heart of a place I love dearly. You can bet I’ll be back among the flea market stalls as often as possible, doing “research.” And I’m going to keep my eyes wide open for “the next big thing.” It may be hard to spot, since it will be built from all the old “big things.”