Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Great Typewriter Price Delusion

Okay, this has been driving me crazy. And if you're a fellow member of the Typosphere, chances are it's been driving you crazy too.

When someone decides to sell that old typewriter they found gathering dust in a garage or closet, the first thing they do is go on the web to get a sense of how much it might be worth. This almost inevitably leads them to certain websites--businesses that charge, shall we say, optimistic prices for their models.
These businesses have a perfect right to do so, of course. I don't begrudge anyone who wants to charge anything they want for whatever they want. Even, oh, $695 for a Hermes 2000, or $395 for a Escort 33 (from Montgomery Ward, 19-freaking-71). Such prices may reflect mint condition, extensive reconditioning, a degree of rarity, and/or the addition of a warranty. They may also reflect some people's willingness to pay through the nose for instant nostalgia. Perhaps the proprietors are gambling on the fact that next to a $3,000 computer, such prices seem reasonable.
But we're talking about the person surfing these sites not looking to buy, but looking to sell. I don't intend to criticize such sites, only to note the lack of useful pricing information on the web for private sellers. It's like deciding to sell a car, and only finding prices for Concours d'Elegance vehicles.
Said person has now gone from knowing nothing about the value of their machine to...well, still not knowing. But now the ignorance is skewed impossibly on the side of avarice. Instead of a fair price that would have guided the typewriter into appreciative hands, the machine is now seen as a mini-goldmine. In their own price calculations, they'll factor in some discount from these stratospheric retails, but they're usually still off by an order of magnitude. I see this all the time on Craigslist: a Remington Rand billed as "selling online for $500," generously marked down to $200. A battered Olympia with "a collectible value of $400," knocked down to a fire-sale $175. On Etsy this morning I found this Royal Quiet Deluxe with "a few scratches and minor missing paint," listed for $375.

It's nice. At $20, I'd be tempted. At $40, I might make a counter-offer. At $100, I'd walk away--and at $375 I'd exit the store as quickly as possible, convinced that the seller hasn't a clue.
This sort of reality disconnect does no one any favors; both buyers and sellers are going away unhappy, and often with enmity. Here's a typical fallout from the Great Typewriter Price Delusion, from Lisa at RetroStyle. She wanted to sell a sweet little trove of a half-dozen vintage typewriters, but when a prospective customer admired her wares:
He looked at the price tag and scoffed..."good luck with that. A guy right over their has one for $10...and I saw another one over that way for the same. You ought a go buy 'em all and corner the market if you think they're worth that!{hahaha}".

{picture me standing there with a look of utter shock at how rude some people can be...slowly changing to a look of I'm gonna kick your ass butt right out of this booth if you don't shut up and move along}.

Well, as it turns out he was giving me some sage, albeit sarcastic, advice. To my detriment I was too affronted to take it.
I've been that guy too many times. It's exhausting to be that guy. To oh-so-politely point out that pricing may be unrealistically skewed, and get the go-to-hell treatment from a vendor armed with false information. What really braises me is that the information disconnect is probably sending perfectly good machines on the path to landfill. Unrealistic prices lead to no sale, and ultimately to the trashcan.
It's time to end this madness. In the hopes that some people will come to this page in their search for "Typewriter Prices", or "Typewriter Pricing Guide", here's an honest and heartfelt message.
Dear old typewriter seller:

Your machine is beautiful. However, unless it is a museum-quality antique belonging to the early days of typewriting, it is not particularly valuable in the monetary sense. We're probably talking two-digit numbers here, and usually low two-digit numbers.

Yes, there are some internet stores that charge more--a lot more. That's just their thing. Such prices aren't representative of the market as a whole, as you'll find if you attempt to emulate them. A far better (and less time-wasteful) approach is to set a price that will guide it into a good home. If you need some benchmarks, watch eBay and see how much models like yours (be honest about condition) are going for, then price accordingly.

Thank you.

It's a start. What the Typosphere really needs is a crowd-sourced list of general pricing parameters--not a full-fledged Blue Book, but a price guide that steers prospective sellers in the right direction, and away from those Concours d'Elegance sites. Ideas/contributions, anyone?

Money image


typograph said...

I'll come right out and say it - are one of the main culprits in this. I can't even count how many listings I've seen on craigslist for machines that are worth maybe $50 where the seller says "selling on for $500!" or quotes some rediculously overblown price close to $1000.
I even wrote one seller an email saying that, Hey, I don't want to burst your bubble or anything, but basically anyone who has bought and sold typewriters knows that they are pretty much picking numbers out of the air at mytypewriter. I just don't want to see you price yourself out of a sale, that's all.
It just makes it harder for those of us who may collect or use these machines to get one at a reasonable price. In 20 years, when the inventory has thinned, maybe $200 for a Sears Tower portable may seem acceptable, but until then I refuse to pay some internet con-artist $895 for a Hermes Ambassador, no matter what condition it's in.

Cheryl said...

Hear hear!!! This post needs to be spread far and wide to all people on Etsy, Ebay, and elsewhere charging pathetically inflated prices for machines that were manufactured by the millions. Unless there is expert refurbishing work included, prices should be double digit. Period.

bikethru said...

Dactyl - Well said. May I just add that if the "old typewriter seller" to whom you address your note is getting price ideas from mytypewriter, he or she may well imagine that those "early days of typewriting" you mention were some time in the 1940s or indeed, as you put it, 19-freaking-71. They need to be told that you can't put 000's on the price tag of many machines later than the Underwood 5 - ie 1900. A good corrective to crazy price notions is to steer people politely to the ever-reliable Richard Polt's FAQs.

deek said...

I will whole-heartedly admit that when I first started looking at pricing my 1952 Smith-Corona Clipper, I was excited to find showing a similar model for three bills.

After I bought my first 1946 Royal QDL on eBay for $40 with shipping, I secretly laughed at the world knowing that it was worth 10 times that.

I got smart after a few weeks and realized the error of my ways. And I share in the internet sighs every time I see a bloated price on Craigslist, eBay and Etsy.

Now having collected a few, I can say that unless we are talking rare of the rare or some sort of extremely mint collector's machine (be that antique or made famous by Mr. Author Man/Woman), I'd say that all typewriters are worth about $40, give or take.

Even if its in excellent condition, its just a typewriter, and while I'm fond of them all, I can only use one at a time...

shordzi said...

I couldn't agree more. Thank you for this post.

Mary said...

Great article! The ironic thing is that I actually did Google "typewriter price guide" and this article popped up as did I was immediately skeptical of their values b/c, well, how many people are there who can or will spend $375 on an Olivetti Lettera 32?! Great machine, but still not worth it. I completely agree with you that it's detrimental to the entire market and, unfortunately, a lot of machines probably are ending up in landfills. Thank you for your honest article. It's just what I needed ;)

Anonymous said...

I just spent 199 on a 1946 royal qdl, reconditioned, repainted, etc. Did I just get duped?

RyanFMS said...

Yes... you did.

Anonymous said...

Man, I so wished I'd stumbled onto to this article before my purchase.

Got my typewriter from you know who... opted for one in "excellent" condition. It's got a fair enough of rust inside, a couple of keys stick, ribbon/carriage doesn't reset using the alt-red ink option, and it's in need of a cleaning.

Performance is mostly okay, I'll admit, but cosmetically... not so such :S

I don't know what the difference between the rate Very Good/Excellent is supposed to have been. By Excellent, I was expecting pristine pieces cobbled together from various machines, etc, something that looks basically brand new. Not this.

If I could do it again, I'd go with Etsy or Ebay as you at least get to see exactly what you getting first.

$450. Plus $150 for all that extra Excellentness. Oh yeah, add another $200 for shipping outside of the US.


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