The demise of the car boot sale or Why I won’t be getting up early next Sunday


My reasons for penning this article are twofold. My first reason if I’m completely honest is just to vent off some mental steam after my latest visit to what was once a pleasant part of my pastime. The second is to reminisce about car boots of old, times now past before car boot sales became the domain of the online auction reseller.

In times gone by…

I have been going to car boot sales for as long as I can remember, at least 25 years probably longer. In that time I have seen them grow from 10-20 cars in a pub car park to 20 acre fields filled with regimented lines of thousands of cars, along with bacon buttie vans galore and facilities like toilets and electrical testing stations. From the organisation point of view, I have also seen much of the fun go out of them. Not only are they run on an industrial scale but they are run in an industrial way, with scores of stewards in flourescent jackets herding you in and out like a military operation and often taking money just for you to park up.

I don’t have to go far back, maybe only 7-10 years or so, to remember a time when (before the retro boom) I could still find boxed Atari STs, 2600s, C64s, ZX Spectrums with crisp boxes full of software and often rarer items such as TRS-80s and TI-99s all just sitting there hours into a car boot sale, untouched and with people walking by uninterested. Indeed, I have bought much of my current boxed collection of consoles from car boot sales over the years. Those days are long gone.

None of these reasons, although all very unsavoury to me, are why I am finally giving up on what was a really fun part of my pastime.

All good things come to an end

The straw that broke the camels back came last Sunday when I unusually went to a local car boot sale at its official opening time of 6.00am. Now, I normally turn up an hour or so after opening and for the past 5 or so years I have noticed a considerable decline in retro items for sale. I have (maybe naively) been putting this down to the retro boom and the fact that people know what retro gaming items are worth nowadays, therefore holding on to them and not taking them to sell at a car boot.

The early arrival last Sunday opened my eyes to what is actually happening at our car boot sales now.

What lay before me was only one row of booters (it was early and they were still rolling in) and what I would estimate to be about 100-150 buyers. Most hadn’t even started unpacking their boots and the buyers were like vultures on roadkill. I witnessed people running after cars as they drove across the field to their pitches, questioning the occupants as to whether they had any DVDs, records, mobile phones and yes, you guessed it, old games and consoles. No sooner as the car booters had opened their hatches, hands were grabbing, taking items out and buyers, many with already full sack-type bags on their back, were haggling the prices down like tourists in a souk. The scene was made worse still by buyers actually arguing with each other as to who saw something first, I witnessed two grown men almost come to blows over a £3 netbook with each staking claim to it.

But we are only just getting to the really sad part. Standing slightly away from the flurry of grabbing hands were whole groups of buyers selling what they had just bought from the booters to each other for profit. Most of these sellers had full sacks of stuff already and many of them were full of video games and consoles. Obviously they were just buying anything they thought they could make profit on.

I’m pretty sure what I was witnessing was a result of the rise in popularity of online auctions and that most of these vultures were in fact online auction resellers. It was certainly clear that they weren’t after items for themselves if many of them were willing to sell on there and then for a small profit.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that even the humble car boot sale has been taken over by greed, but I still find it depressing. I don’t feel I can be a part of what I witnessed last week, I came away feeling somehow tainted by the experience. Unless there comes a time when boot sales no longer suffer from the curse of resellers, I’m not even sure I will ever bother going to one again. So when you are next at a car boot sale and wonder where all the retro items are, just blame greed… oh, and a certain online auction site.

Author: Ant Harper

Father, Husband, website developer, avid gamer since the mid-70s and collector of just about anything video game related. 8-Bit microcomputer and Sinclair specialist with a huge Sinclair related collection of his own. Blogs about retro gaming here but occasionally elsewhere when people ask. Bored of Mario and never much liked Zelda. Performs quirkafleegs for cold hard cash. Often found destroying ice crowns in the Lands of Midnight. Remembers: Lunar Lander. Plays: Steel Battalion, Gears of War

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  1. I thought it was just me that’d noticed this. The car boot I visit most often is plagued with the dreaded re – sellers, most notably one guy whose face I have come to recognise, and his accomplice. They start at opposite ends of the sale and work their way to the middle.Whenever I see him he has bags full of games, and on the occasions where I’ve seen him buying, he just scoops up everything, regardless of whether the games are good or utter rubbish. I’ve seen him at other sales too. Clearly no interest in the games, just what sort of profit he can make. I’m also approaching the point where I give up and stick to adding to my collection from stores. Very sad.

  2. Yeah this is the thing, I have no beef about people sharing my hobby and beating me to stuff, it’s going to happen, but the vultures just hoover up everything in sight, like you say good or bad. And like you say they have no interest in the games, just the profit that can be made from them. I have actually had enough now and until the retro bubble bursts and retro is no longer profitable for these parasites, I will not be going to a boot fair again unfortunately.

  3. I follow you on Twitter and only just realised you’re also in the West Midlands, (I’m from Coventry); maybe the problem is just round this neck of the woods, (we can hope…). Just returned from a week in Somerset and while I didn’t manage to visit any car boots down there, they do have a healthy number of independent game shops that also sell retro games & systems. Much better than round here anyway. Perhaps the car boots round there are a little less populated by vultures as well…

  4. I do (did) sometimes travel to a boot fair in Warwickshire, and actually it is slightly better than one around here come to think of it. Maybe it is a regional thing. Maybe it’s being (too) close to Birmingham? I’m from right the other end of the WM btw, Stourbridge.

  5. Great post! I’ve been going to car boot sales since I was 6. I got my second computer – a ZX Spectrum+ with joysticks and a load of mainly copied games at the age of 10 😉 Booties were where I got most of my games. It gave me my education of earlier releases 83 to 86 as those were the games you could find back then. And often getting massive sets of old computer mags to learn more about this amazing hobby. The best period in the late amiga days when you could find people selling their entire collections of 8/16 bit computers and games for very reasonable prices. Unfortunately for me I was a penny-less student at that time, living in a single room while at uni, and having no money or space to make the most of those bargains :(

    You’re right that these days there is very little going in the way of retrogaming. I see mainly xbox/xbox360/psx/ps2 consoles and a trillion variants of fifa for sale.

    I do find it makes a difference which booty you go to, and how much choice you have. Close to me I have a massive mad max style booty that can take 5 hours to walk around and is like an international bazar. The growing underclass of British, and new to Britain – e.g. Asian, Eastern European people milling around buying and selling all kinds of random stuff. I find it quite thrilling to be a part of.

    I recommend reading Andre Breton’s book Nadja – a seminal text of the Surrealist movement. Where he talks about being a flaneur – looking around market stalls mixing with the high and low brow, finding intereting trinkets and pieces. The proto consumer-adventurer. I feel that visiting such booties is the 2014 equivalent.

    Then there are the more middle class, smaller booties, in leafier suburbs. Mainly loads of baby clothes, but often some interesting pieces.

    Further afield I know a really bohemian booty in a very posh area – lots of arty types selling paintings and homemade furniture and more exotic things.

    If you have the energy and time, explorering further afield you can still find a great deal of variation. However – no retro gaming stuff, not like it used to be.

    These days my main purchases are random furniture and ornaments for the home. Even if I only get a bacon and egg roll, I’m happy :) It’s more of a family morning out these days – the missus loves finding things and repainting, repurposing them. And it’s of course very cheap.

    So tomorrow I will be going to the local mad max style booty, even if all I get out of it is observing the state of Britain in 2014 and lunch involving bacon from a burger van :)

  6. I’ve tried all the ones around here, there are some further afield but I’m just not prepared to travel that far let alone get up early enough for any potential bargains. Been doing it for so long now, it had become part of my life too but everything changes I suppose, unfortunately not always for the better.

  7. I fully agree with this. Up until 3 years ago I used to go to 2 boot sales in Cardiff on Saturday and a big local one near me on Sunday morning. When I first started back 2005 a lot of boxed stuff and consoles were there. I was picking up SNES’s boxed with maybe 5 – 8 games for £8. I got an Amiga 1200 with 3.1 roms and CD Drive for £5 with external drives and games.

    There was a select few also looking then, but that is fine I got to know them and if I found something I already had and didn’t want I would either drop them a text or pick it and sell it them what I paid for it and they do the same back. It was great and enjoyed going for the company.

    Then they stopped or whatever and after 5 years, Ebay was popular everyone was doing what you encountered, buying anything and everything, bombarding booters as they pulled up, and getting aggressive if I got something until eventually all the retro stuff dried up and there was not much available and no point getting up 4 am just to go.

    Greed did ruining the bootsale scene. I used buy first for my collection and if I wanted a bit of money to buy something I would *very occasionally” (maybe 4 times in 8 years) sell a duplicate I picked up. But my main aim was to collect but this changed and all became about the sellers and not collectors.

  8. Ebay has a lot to answer for. To make it worthwhile for the desperate vultures, they must browbeat sellers into giving up items for pennies (games). Unless they’re lucking into cream, just doesn’t seem worth it; and all at the expense of genuine collectors.

    More and more people seem to be going 100% emulation, having given up chasing inflated game eras. Naturally, the tangible affords that bit of material history, but at the end of the day it’s the game play counts. I can see their point.

  9. Good point about more people going for emulation. Perhaps that’s when the ‘retrogaming bubble’ will burst; when the vultures realise there aren’t enough people left with an interest in collecting that are also willing to pay their hyper-inflated prices. They’ll pro ably move onto something else then and ruin someone else’s hobby…

  10. over a year on mate i can tell you very little has changed. but i still manage to find good things when i go. i work by the rules of i will never dive in someone’s boot as it’s something i personal hate when I’m selling myself and once its on a table it’s game to buy. When i see boot vultures i just walk past happy to miss out anything that stall has to offer. Also most of these people go after a hour or so and a second walk round the booty is what i do after a bacon butty. I try and do 2-3 bootys when i go out and leg work is normally more rewarding with find’s .

  11. This is nothing new to me at all. The last time I went to a car boot was probably around 2000-2001. At that time, the Atari stuff was already dying out, but there was a dearth of Megadrive, Master System and PS1 stuff. Anything of value was snapped up by a handful of “professionals” before you could get there and promptly marked up before putting them on their own stalls. As a result, the Atari stuff was gone before you could blink, the Master system stuff still dotted about was all “The Ninja” and the Megadrive stuff was all EA Sports titles. I gave up bothering, sold most of my games in 2001 (needed the cash for my student days) and didn’t really give it a second thought. Now I wish I had hung on to some of it based on the ridiculous prices you can get on Ebay. For example I just looked to see how much I could get a working NES for a certain auction site – crazy, when in around 1998-2000 I could have got these for about £3 each at any boot sale.

    Really I think it’s just another example of value rising simply because people are thinking something is highly valuable to someone who really wants it – the law of the greater fool. The bottom will fall out of the market sooner or later, but it’s just a case of who will be holding onto the £500 NES with the Mario/Duck Hunt combo cartridge when it does :-)

  12. I went to the first car boot sale at nepicar farm in 1979 or 1980. Every sunday still to this day i visit car boots in the hope of a bargain. As my parents were antique dealers from the 1970s onwards.And my grandparents and great grandparents were dealers going back to the early 20th century I picked up what had value either antiques or more modern items. In the early 1980s I would buy boxes of dinky cars, thunderbird toys, pre 1960 beano books, ww2 helmets, badges. All sorts. Medals from the 19thc and loads of art deco items. I can remember stalls after stalls full of star wars toys and lego, vintage action man etc. No one wanted it including me !! I watch the buyers of the 21st century with amusement. If only they cast their eye they would pick up fantastic items. But thankfully all they know is what ebay tells them. I just bought a rug from South west iran. Large size great condition c1840. £10.00!!! Value £1000. Im keeping it as its so nice. Only the other week I bought a 18th century American coin for 50p .sold it the next day for £650 in London. .. I still get great stuff but I have my fall back 37 years of car booting. Now that’s some money can’t buy. I hate the resellers asking sellers what they have. This has always been done. But it’s got worse over the past 15 years. Got any gold !! Argggg. Look for it your self. It’s called the thrill of the hunt.

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