When a trove of thousands of obsolete Atari video game cartridges was recently uncovered in a New Mexico landfill, where they'd been dumped by the struggling game maker in 1983, nobody was less surprised than Bruce Carso. The co-owner of B & C ComputerVisions in El Dorado, California, has been selling Atari hardware and software since 1980. “We knew about this when it happened,” Carso says.
In fact, Carso saw even more truckloads of Atari cartridges hauled to a San Jose, California, dump about the same time, after he’d purchased as many as he could in what amounted to Atari’s going-out-of-business sale. Although the original Atari went under in 1984—the brand has been owned by several other entities since then—Carso still runs a viable business selling, repairing and providing services for Atari game systems.
And he’s far from the only business owner who traffics in nostalgia. Slide rules, 8-track tapes, out-of-print children’s books and even the ultimate in obsolescence—buggy whips—all have enough demand today to keep profitable companies up and running. Carso says he even has more business than he can handle, especially after the news about copies of Atari’s “E.T.” game turning up in New Mexico.
“I just sold some last week,” Carso says. “As soon as that announcement occurred, three people called up and ordered it.”
Oldies but Goodies
People buy outdated products for a variety of reasons. Some of Carso’s customers are musicians who want him to transfer compositions created on archaic Atari systems to modern computers. Walter Shawlee, president of Sphere Research Corp. in Kelowna, British Columbia, says some customers contact him looking for the same kind of slide rule they used many years ago in school. “A lot of times, people’s kids are having trouble doing math," Shawlee says, "and the slide rule is a good way to visualize it.”
Buggy whip makers sell to affluent hobbyists who still keep horse-drawn carriages and need some way to guide their four-legged transportation. Eight-track tape aficionados are generally motivated by a combination of nostalgia for the audio technology of the 1970s and the desire to collect increasingly rare tapes and players.
Jill Morgan, owner of book publishing firm Purple House Press in Cynthiana, Kentucky, says her customers are most commonly interested in reading their children the same books they read as kids. Another big market is grandparents who want to read to grandchildren the same books they read to their grandchildren’s parents. “That," Morgan says, "and people just [get] suddenly nostalgic for their childhood and want the books for themselves.”
Bumps in the Road
But selling nostalgia comes with special problems. Supply is perhaps the biggest. While many slide rules created for special purposes, such as calculating the sizes of air-conditioning ducts, are manufactured today, old-fashioned wooden slide rules that generations of engineers carried in their pockets for all sorts of computations are increasingly scarce.
Shawlee says he searches worldwide for overlooked stores of rules, finding them in such places as warehouses, shuttered office supply stores and schoolhouse inventories. Occasionally, he locates a stash of a few hundred or even a few thousand. “With every year that goes by," he says, "the chances of you finding a new perfect in-the-box rule goes down.”
Similar issues plague Carso. The “E.T.” cartridges found in the landfill are no longer playable, he says. And the parts for repairing malfunctioning, decades-old game systems are getting harder and harder to find.
Short supply can also be a blessing, of course. Morgan began her publishing company when, as a new mother, she wanted a copy of Mr. Pine’s Purple House, which she had loved as a child, and found that it would cost her $300. Rather than pay that exorbitant price, she started contacting authors and their heirs to get the rights to and be able to re-issue old editions. Providing plentiful, affordable supplies of longtime favorite kids’ books to today’s readers allows Morgan and her husband to support themselves with their business.
Demand is also an issue. While markets still exist for old technology, those markets are fairly limited. After many years of development, for instance, both Purple House Press and B & C ComputerVisions are still quintessential mom-and-pop businesses. Sphere Research is a part-time sideline for Shawlee, enough to put his daughter through college, he says, but not enough to replace his primary business designing avionics.
But while the markets may be limited, they're also proving to be long-lasting. Shawlee has found an enduring group of customers who appreciate a slide rule’s ability to quickly help users visualize a variety of solutions to a math problem. They're also useful because they don’t require electricity and can operate in challenging conditions, as was evidenced by a shipment he once sent to a group of scientists in Antarctica.
“Because something is old technology doesn’t mean it’s useless,” Shawlee says.
And Carso sees enough business and inventory that he thinks he'll be able to keep B & C ComputerVisions going for as long as he likes, whether or not any more landfill finds hit the headlines.
“We still have a 5,000-square-foot warehouse full,” Carso says. “We have over 50,000 games in our warehouse.”
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