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Adventures in eBayland

Anton’s small returns make him consider digging for gold in the garden a more productive option.

My 13-year-old son is not avaricious, but he is quietly mindful of the significance of Saturday mornings, when his allowance is due. Patiently, and without ceremony, he waits for me to rise, shower, and have my breakfast. Only then does he announce, “You owe me $5.” I pay up, and Anton goes to his room to squirrel the cash away.

I realize that five bucks is a fairly piddling sum in today’s inflationary world. I have been looking for ways to get a little more mazuma into Anton’s growing hands without forking it over outright. A mown lawn here, a snow-shoveled driveway there helps out, but my son really wants to work and is in the unfortunate position of simply being too young to get a paying job, however willing his spirit.

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We talked about this, and I wound up suggesting that he put some of his unwanted or outgrown things on eBay. “EBay?” he echoed, and wondered aloud if he could really earn enough money to make it worth the effort of writing text, uploading photos, and shipping goods, with no guarantee of a sale. “Sure,” I told him. “People will buy almost anything.” And then I described how, only a year ago, two sisters in Virginia had sold a cornflake shaped like Illinois for $1,350.

Anton’s eyes bugged out. “Whoa,” he said, and immediately began to go through his things. Within the hour he came up with a couple of computer game CDs in which he had lost interest. I posted them under my account name. By the end of the week someone had won them for $6. A modest figure, but Anton was ecstatic. He had entered the world of honest commerce.

Next up were a couple of cartridges from his hand-held game player (I think it’s called a PSP). A few bids came in, and the cartridges went for $6, even though he had originally paid about $20 apiece for them. Anton was enough of an eBay veteran by now to realize that making a “killing” on the auction site was not something one could count on. The problem, of course, is that things we think are unusual or rare or sought-after are actually pretty usual, common, and not particularly desirable. The result is that there really are no bargains on eBay: The winning bidder is the person, out of a pool of millions, who is willing to pay the most, not the least, for the item. 

Undaunted, Anton kept posting his personal gleanings. Videotapes, books, toys. A dollar here, a dollar there. It began to add up, but it was, indeed, real work: the posting, the communicating with buyers, the packing, the shipping. 

In a fit of desperation, perhaps, my son finally exclaimed, “Let’s just take your metal detector, go outside, and find some gold!”

Ah, if only it were that simple. Instead, I had a talk with my son about the value of what he was doing. “Look,” I said, “the things you’re selling are not winding up in a landfill. You don’t need them anymore, and you can’t spend them. But somebody out there is willing to give you a few bucks for this stuff. You’re making somebody happy, and for a fair price. You can be proud of that.”

Anton seemed moderately receptive to my counsel and went off to his next labor. But in the end, I’m not sure I got through. You see, that evening I heard a strange, methodical crunching sound coming from the kitchen. When I looked in, there was my son, at the table, holding a potato chip to his mouth with both hands, nibbling away like a chipmunk. “What are you doing?” I asked him.

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“I’m trying to make a chip look like Maine,” he said, “so we can put it on eBay. Maybe somebody will bid a thousand dollars. Can you help me?” Then he held up a piece of his handiwork. “How does this look?”

“Like Slovenia,” I said.

And so ended our experiment with eBay. It’s clearly time to increase that boy’s allowance.