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MIT Swapfest

Where old and new technology collide

5289 swapfest
Two men discuss how to fix a motorized drive axle at Swapfest on September 16. The event, a fleamarket for electronic and computer parts, is held on the third Sunday of every month from April to October. It’s is located near the intersection of Albany Street and Main Street.
Andy Ihnatko

CAMBRIDGE — John, a merchant cleaning out his garage at the behest of his wife, set up a table early Sunday morning on Albany Street. On this table one could find a smorgasbord of electronic parts and old computer chipsets next to a tray of wrenches and hammers, all of which were for sale at modest prices. Once he was set up, he sat down listening to an old radio — no word on if it, too, was for sale ­— and waited for customers to start rolling in. In the background, the hammering of a typewriter could be heard next to a demonstration booth for the old Enigma computer. John was one of hundreds of buyers and sellers who flocked to the MIT campus for the MIT Radio Society’s Swapfest held Sunday, Oct. 21.

Everything from HD monitors to books on elementary Chinese could be found for sale at this technology bazaar, which took up a large parking lot as well as several floors of a parking garage. For a small admission fee, shoppers could browse the goods of merchants who ran the gamut from independent flea market sellers to representatives of larger electronics stores. “We get all things nerdly,” said Steve Finberg, a coordinator of the event and member of the MIT Radio Society. I can’t think of a better way to put it.

As its name implies, Swapfest is a monthly event where buyers and sellers can trade their goods with like-minded electronics enthusiasts. The event draws sellers from numerous states to peddle their wares. “People like to haggle,” said Tony, a seller who deals in refurbished and modified computer equipment.

Moments later, I watched as he demonstrated what he meant by negotiating the price of a disk drive with a customer. Like many sellers, he dealt primarily with older computer technology — parts that are difficult to find or replace in most modern stores. For collectors of old technology and hardware, Swapfest is an exciting event. For me, it was just fun to see what happens when you get a huge collection of geeks and their stuff together in one place.

The goods on display at Swapfest ran the gamut from old to new, with advanced gadgets like iPads for sale at some tables and simple nuts and bolts available at others. One table was particularly popular with the student crowd — a video game collection spanning three decades worth of systems and games, from the Atari 2600 to the Xbox 360. I saw a game or two that have eluded me over the years and almost put down my pen and notepad to do some shopping of my own.

The attendees of the event were as diverse as the goods on display. This month, the sellers were primarily older collectors looking to unload some of their wares, while the buyers tended to be younger people looking for deals on electronics. “We get a very eclectic group of people here,” said Spencer, who has been selling at Swapfest for over 25 years.

“This has been a lot of fun so far,” said Joe, a UMass student attending Swapfest for the first time. He admitted that he was primarily looking for deals on old gaming hardware but that he’d been surprised at how many gadgets had piqued his interest. He said this was his first real “flea market” type gathering, but he planned on coming back. Like myself, he only recently heard about the event.

Swapfest ran smoothly and without any issues according to Precious, a security guard. “It has been very quiet, very peaceful,” she said, noting that there hadn’t been any incidents at the event. Indeed, Swapfest’s bazaar atmosphere has a certain equilibrium about it and a sense of community that seems to foster good behavior among the throngs of visitors. This peaceful atmosphere is something that attendees can be thankful for, given the large volume of people visiting the event. Everyone here seemed to be on the same page, and one of the best parts of the event for me was the welcoming atmosphere.

Weather was a concern for the outdoor part of the event, as storm clouds formed overhead around mid-morning. “We’re not supposed to get rain today, but you never know,” said Skip, a seller. He was prepared in the event of the worst happening, and I watched him unwrap lengthy sheets of plastic to keep his collection of PC hardware from being damaged in the event of any rainfall. Many other sellers had tents in place over their wares. The weather ended up cooperating, and the event went off without a hitch.

Swapfest runs on the third Sunday of each month from April to October; it has been going strong for a quarter of a century. The next Swapfest won’t be until April 2013, but if the enthusiasm of the attendees at this event was any indication, the next one is sure to be just as fun and successful.