Wired and Woolly

The geeks come out at night for Dallas' 'First Saturday' cyper swap meet

At 3 o'clock in the morning, Darryl Burrows is prowling a parking lot on the northern fringe of downtown. Night lights from the city's skyscrapers burn over empty streets, and sunrise is still several hours away. But Burrows is already damp with sweat.

His glasses are askew, his hair sticks out in most directions. Suspenders hold up his pants, which are slung low to hold up his belly. The breast pocket of his green T-shirt migrates toward his waist, sagging under the weight of more than a pocketful of scrap paper.

He has come to this parking lot to hunt. Computers. Specifically, Macintosh stuff, because Burrows is a Mac guy.

"There's a lot of Mac equipment being dumped now, mostly by corporate America," he says. "They're dumping Macs. Keeping PCs. Corporations are not upgrading." He says this quietly--conspiratorially--eyes glancing over his shoulder, as if someone else on the parking lot might be listening, maybe some of the other Mac guys--who might not be savvy to the computer whims of corporate America.

Burrows is 39, and computers hold inordinate sway over his life. He not only remembers the location of the first discount computer store that opened in Dallas, but also the colors of its awning. He will not say what he does for a living, exactly, and when asked his name, he spells it out backward. Kind of a little game, you see.

And he is not alone on the parking lot this early May morning. Many more like him--hundreds of them--are slinking around, carrying flashlights, murmuring, poking into boxes, looking to bag some cheap RAM, haul it home, and mount it in the motherboard.

Because if corporate America is dumping Macs, a fair number of the castoff computers will end up here, to be picked over for salvage under the night lights of downtown Dallas.

Once a month, the computer-geek tribes--PC people outnumbering the lonely Mac guys--gather at several parking lots on Ross Avenue near the Central Expressway overpass for what is arguably the largest computer flea market in the country.

Dozens of rental trucks, from Texas and states as far away as Washington and Florida, roll in laden with used, abused, and discounted computer equipment. Flatbed trailers arrive with mounds of monitors strapped aboard. Chips, drives, boards, cables, software, memory, and all other things computer are laid out on folding tables or piled on the ground. Portable generators are fired up to power lights and merchandise.

At its peak, the market covers seven acres of parking lots straddling Ross Avenue. Keyboards, stacked in cords, sell for $12. Monitors can run $5, but whether or not they work is your problem. Software, with and without documentation, sells for change. Everything is open to negotiation, and at some booths the going rates for memory chips are posted on chalkboards, changing like prices in a Chicago commodities pit.

Tens of thousands of dollars flow through the market each night, most of it cash, although the high-end vendors--the ones that actually set up and sell from underneath canopies--bring cellular phones so they can accept credit cards.

Officially the market is known as First Saturday, but it really starts late Friday night because over the years the geeks keep showing up earlier and earlier, afraid someone else will beat them to a good deal. So by sunset on Friday, the first trucks are pulling in.

First Saturday is a peculiar institution, a nocturnal rite that calls forth people like Darryl Burrows to sate their technological addictions. It is also a bargain hunter's mecca, where the guts of high-tech are sold and bartered like apples and peppers at a farmer's market.

There are few rules and fewer guarantees on the lot, and First Saturday is not for the timid.

"It's a crazy combination of night crawlers, computerites, hackers, and wireheads," says Al Miller, who runs the market. "This is America in microcosm, right here."

Al Miller was dangerously close to becoming a sociologist when he stumbled onto his definition of America, the microcircuit menagerie of First Saturday. An older-than-average graduate student at Texas A&M, Miller was pursuing a doctorate in sociology when he started making extra money by building computers and selling them to his fellow grad students.

His quest for parts naturally led him to Dallas and First Saturday in 1990. Scouring the lot at his first sale, Miller says, he discovered he could buy all the components of a pretty good computer for about $300.

But the blessings of free enterprise did not end there. Miller further realized that there were two distinct breeds of customer at the market--hard-core computer junkies like himself who know how to assemble the machines, and neophytes who don't have the skill or confidence to build their own box from scratch.

So Miller bought $300 worth of parts, found some place to sit down, and assembled a complete machine. Then he sold the finished computer to someone else at a profit. Then he did it again.

"I built a computer, sold it, bought more parts, and sold another. I made $400 profit that first night, and I did it before the sun came up," Miller says. "Even an Aggie can figure out that's a good deal."

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