Wired and Woolly

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."

Miller abandoned his doctoral studies and plunged full time into computer salvage and sales. He now owns two computer stores in Conroe, north of Houston. Like the junkyards gearheads and mechanics scour for car parts, Miller's business caters to scavengers, the frugal, and the desperate. He offers used machines, refurbished components, and bargain buys.

Computers have been around long enough now that the world is awash in used, outmoded, and surplus equipment. Someone has to feed the bottom of the technological food chain--the shade-tree wireheads and basement hackers--so businesses like Miller's are flourishing, and so is First Saturday.

Miller kept attending First Saturday regularly after his maiden visit in 1990, getting a feel for the rhythms of the market. Prices are abstract, changing with the time of day and size of the crowd. Merchandise can change hands several times a night as profiteers buy low and look for a quick turnaround. Or items can sit untouched until closing time, when vendors might be willing to practically give them away instead of buying the gas to haul a load of junk back home.

Two years ago, Miller felt he knew the market well, and took over the show. He bought up the rights to the First Saturday name and the once-a-month leases on the parking lots from the previous organizer, a local auction company. Miller formally incorporated First Saturday, and made it his realm.

On his business cards, Miller dubs himself "Mayor" of First Saturday, but he is merely the latest to preside over this electronic flea market, which has been taking place in various forms and at various locations for several decades.

Those who remember say that First Saturday's precursor--a floating electronics swap meet--began about 30 years ago in the parking lot of an old Heathkit electronics store, at a time when ham radios and audio equipment were the playthings for wireheads. Burrows, who now prowls the market for Macs, first attended 22 years ago. "It wasn't computers then," he says. "It was ham gear and electronics."

Sometime in the 1980s, the market moved in under the bridges of Central Expressway. It was an informal affair, strictly first come-first serve. No one rented out spaces. People with stuff to sell just came, staked out a spot, and laid it out. Through word of mouth, the night crawlers knew to meet under the bridges.

The ham-radio world was a small one to begin with, though, and the ham operators could not hold sway forever. Over the years, First Saturday evolved, moving a few steps behind a changing world. Stereos, color televisions, VCRs, and microwaves all filtered down to the bargain-basement swap meet within a few years of their mass introduction. Technology that starts at the vanguard of civilization inevitably ends up on a table or tailgate at First Saturday, with a discount price tag attached to it. And naturally, computers have come to dominate the market in the past 10 years.

In 1991, the market moved out from under the bridges and onto the Ross Avenue parking lots, largely because the crowds were getting too big and messing up traffic under the bridges, which attracted the attention of police.

When it moved, it also became more formal. The initial organizers actually obtained leases to use the parking lots, and began charging vendors nominal fees to set up and sell their wares.

Since Miller took over the operation two years ago, it has advanced even further. Capital improvements are the province of a good mayor. There are now portable toilets--trucked in by BFI each month the night before the sale--and a doughnut stand. Miller kept the concession rights for himself, although lately a renegade chili-dog truck has been showing up, selling from a nearby parking lot that Miller does not yet control.

Miller and his wife drive to Dallas from Conroe every Thursday before the sale. He has a staff of 20 people who keep the market running. The computer geeks are generally a well-behaved crowd. "Really, remarkably well-behaved," Miller says.

Vendors pay $25 to rent spots for the night. Miller scurries about the lots in a golf cart, wearing khaki shorts and a First Saturday T-shirt.

First Saturday has become so successful that nearby property owners have started charging for parking, and auditors from the State Comptroller's office regularly show up to make sure Texas is getting its cut in sales taxes. An off-duty policeman is hired to keep traffic moving on Ross Avenue when the crowds get dense.  

Since he took over, Miller boasts, the market has been held on the first Saturday of every month no matter what. Even during the ice storm earlier this year, he was there, along with a few dozen hard-core customers.

On more temperate weekends, more than 350 sellers show up to hawk their stuff. Before sunrise, the true wireheads are out in force. After the sun comes up, thousands of relatively normal customers pack the lots. On good weekends, Miller says, 20,000 people make their way to Ross Avenue.

Bargains, obviously, are the draw. Along with the mounds of used equipment, some discount computer stores send out trucks loaded with brand-new parts, monitors, and keyboards. Boards, memory chips, and other components still wrapped in factory plastic sell cheap because overhead at First Saturday is about as low as it can get. Miller himself runs a booth stocked with components from his own stores. It is not unusual, he says, to turn $10,000 or $20,000 worth of business in one night.

"It's a lot cheaper," he says. "And it's adventuresome. It's a lot more fun than shopping at a mall."

With the savings come risks. Even Miller, the consummate First Saturday promoter, allows that "there is an element of caveat emptor" to the whole affair. Much of the merchandise is sold without warranties. Some small portion of it may even be stolen, although Miller thinks that if there was much in the way of stolen property, the comptroller's agents would have sniffed it out by now.

Most of the vendors have been setting up in the same spots for years, and customers with a gripe know where to find them when the next First Saturday rolls around. But the market clearly rewards those with little fear, or at least those confident that they can build a computer as easily as they can use one.

Steve Ferree's beret complements his moustache. He is thin, small, a former F-15 mechanic. The military showed him bits of the world, but now he lives in Tulsa.

Repairing electronics is still his living, and every so often he loads surplus gear into his pickup and drives to Dallas for First Saturday. He's done it a few dozen times in the last 15 years.

For the May market, Ferree brought down a stack of oscilloscopes, battered but glowing strong in the predawn. "The horizontal is time, the vertical is voltage," he says, explaining the green bands that measure electronic noise, and are pulsing amid the jumble of lights and generators near his table. Ferree has the used scopes priced at $250, one-tenth of what new ones might run. Ironically, his first sale is to a bargain hunter who has also traveled far to Dallas. From Tulsa.

"Guess we could have saved some gas," Ferree says.
The predawn prowlers of First Saturday are anti-Luddites. They do not fear new technology. They just like taking things apart. Patrick Hart calls them "the nocturnal-type computer guys," a potentially unsettling concept. Hart is an employee of Third Coast Computers, an Arlington company that regularly sets up at First Saturday.

Third Coast buys batches of surplus equipment, much of it from the government. The used monitors Hart is offering still carry inventory tags from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Hart, who spends most of his days selling retail out of a regular store, says the buyers at First Saturday are a different breed: "They are more knowledgeable. And everybody wants to haggle with you."

As a sideline, Hart also sells adult videos, which are laid out on a table near the Third Coast booth. Hart says one of his bosses bought the adult stuff cheap from a friend in financial distress. The boss figured he might be able to move the videos in a crowd of nocturnal-type computer guys. So at the Third Coast booth, customers can buy an FDIC monitor as well as a copy of Lingerie Dreams.

A number of vendors at First Saturday are like Third Coast--established computer companies whose workers can knowledgeably discuss the equipment they sell.

Then there are the folks like Milt Schreck.
The parking lot furthest from Ross Avenue is First Saturday's low-rent district, the lot Miller leases out at cut rates to true junk dealers like Schreck, who has virtually no idea what he is selling or how much it might be worth.

Seventy-five years old, Schreck is retired from the Navy. He has repeatedly promised his wife of 53 years that he will stop going to flea markets, garage sales, and auctions. He has routinely broken those promises.  

Schreck buys and sells as a hobby. "A lot of auctions, I don't even buy anything," he says. "I just go because it's someplace to be."

But Schreck still buys, unable to curb his appetite for salvage. That means he often ends up with a pile of computer equipment he doesn't even understand. "Sometimes, I get rooked. But other times I do OK," he says. He hauls his accumulated inventory down to First Saturday to see if he can turn a profit.

"I don't know too much about computers," he says. "I buy and sell junk. Let the young kids figure it out. I'm too far down the line."

At the most recent sale, Schreck and a helper arrived in a U-Haul packed with computer monitors. Schreck had no idea if any of them worked. He bought them as a load at an auction. But he figures that for a few bucks a pop, someone might take a fly. Some of the things have to work.

For diversity's sake, he also brought along some golf clubs, slide projectors, and two bicycles.

For Schreck, a good night will mean taking home $150. It's harder to make money from the computer nerds than the crowds at other flea markets where he peddles stuff.

"You get some pretty sophisticated people here," says Schreck, surveying the First Saturday crowd from his lawn chair.

Sophisticated folks, but no spendthrifts.

Mike McDonald came to Dallas with computer boards, and returned to Houston with a giant plastic deer. Even computer geeks are not immune to the infectious nature of ready bargains.

For the past two years, McDonald has been driving up from Houston to work the market, selling stock from his computer store out of the back of a battered green van. "The first time we came out here, we made $10,000," he says. "But we haven't had a win since."

As it's grown, the market has become more cutthroat, with too many dealers fighting for the dollar, McDonald says. His boards weren't selling too well during May's market, so he was out checking the lot--trying to see who was undercutting his prices--when he spotted the plastic deer.

It was life-size, in pretty good shape, equally useful as a decoy or for target practice. Being a hunter, McDonald scooped it up. "Ten bucks for a deer," he gloats. "That thing new is $80. I can set it up at the end of my hallway and take target practice." McDonald stuck the deer on top of his van, and went back to selling boards.

Around the edges of First Saturday are some distractions for computer geeks. Snuck in among the hacker booths are stashes of telephones, remote-control cars, gun racks, car alarms, and power tools.

Miller says he tries to keep clutter out of the market, limiting it to computer-related merchandise. Since he took over, he's banned stun guns, blow darts, and other instruments of pain. Customers looking for those can go to Trader's Village.

But some measure of flea market still wriggles its way into First Saturday.
Mark Worcester and his wife, owners of a Fort Worth electronics store, make the market every month and purposely bring everything but computer equipment.

Worcester, a veteran of First Saturday since its days in the Heathkit parking lot, buys salvage and discontinued merchandise, a lot of it from Radio Shack. Rows of cordless phones and answering machines, all brand-new, line his tables.

He hauls in bins of remote controls, wall plates, headphones, and cords of all manner and use. "When you buy damaged stuff, you get it pretty cheap. You can buy whole truckloads," he says. "But you don't always know what you're getting." Which explains the table full of Barbie dolls and Star Wars action figures.

"You never know," McDonald says. "You put it out there and see what happens."

Worcester himself recently bought a used compact-disc player at First Saturday for $15, one he figures retails new for about $500. "Whether it works or not, for $15 it's a helluva deal," he says, invoking a peculiar inverse logic understood by many First Saturday regulars.

The problem with selling to a flea-market crowd is that your customers are generally cheapskates, McDonald says in an affirmation of the obvious. If he's lucky, he'll make $1,000 a night, after feeding and paying the relatives he drags along with him to man his booth. But for general junksters like him, First Saturday is worse than most. There are too many computer geeks who aren't looking for cordless phones.  

Too many people like Darryl Burrows.
Come sunrise, Burrows' market day is pretty much over. He's a happy, if tired, pack rat. During the night, he has acquired one of those portable carts people use to haul luggage through airports. It is stacked high with techno-refuse, boxes and cables, things Burrows might be able to use, or swap, or sell.

He is sweating even more, dragging the loaded luggage cart across Ross Avenue. The crowd is getting thicker, the neophytes beginning to show, the people who don't even know how many megs it takes to run Windows 95.

Night's gone and Burrows is going. It's too late in the day for a nocturnal-type computer guy.

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