Penman No. 32: Ten Tips for the eBay Newbie

ebayPenman for Monday, February 4, 2013

BEEN LOOKING for a DVD copy of the 1973 Hollywood musical Lost Horizon, a 1954 Omega Seamaster, a pair of Johnny Depp’s Moscot Lemtosh shades, an 11200-mAh power bank for your iPhone, or a 1988 Stipula Baracca limited-edition fountain pen? Well, I have—and I found them all, not in my neighborhood mall or ukay-ukay, but in that largest of global marketplaces, eBay.

I’ve been buying and occasionally selling on eBay almost from the very beginning, since December 1997, and now have a feedback of 520+ (thankfully 100 percent positive). In all those hundreds of transactions, I’ve had maybe three or four bum cases of sellers not delivering, or sending me bad stuff. All of those cases were sorted out and I was refunded, so I do believe eBay to be a generally safe place to shop, with lots of wonderful bargains to be had, but as with any marketplace physical or digital, it can be tricky for the unwary.

I thought of writing up this brief guide to shopping on eBay because, thanks to my recent articles featuring fountain pens, papers, and inks, I’ve been deluged with inquiries about where to find these items and for how much. In particular, vintage and premium pens seem to be in great demand—pens like the Montblanc 149 and 146, the Parker Duofold, Parker Vacumatic, and Parker 75, and 1920s Waterman pens with flexible nibs.

I’ve sold quite a few of these pens myself, having made a pledge (a pitifully weak one) to trim down my collection of about 200 pens by half. My recent acquisitions have tended to be more expensive, so to help assuage my wallet and my conscience, I’ve had to dispose some of my loot, if only to make room for more. That means that I have to find a steady and reliable source for pens both to resell and to keep, and that can only be eBay—where, at any given moment, there will be about 40,000 pens of all kinds to compete for my attention and my credit card.

So I’ve been telling my pen-seeking friends that they could save themselves a chunk of change by bypassing me and going straight to the source—where a slightly used Montblanc 149 (which sells new on Amazon for $810) might go for around $400. But I’ve also warned them that it’s going to be a slippery slope, fraught with dangers and risks—not to mention the biggest risk of all, which is to get infected with eBay shopaholia.

Even if you care nothing about pens, there are literally a million more things to be found on and on its local site,—everything from a mummified monkey’s paw (which you can buy without bidding for $13.00) and an 1864 autograph of Abraham Lincoln (bidding starts at $4,995.00) to a 2012 Lamborghini Aventador (yours for $469,991.00). Very likely, they’ll be things you don’t need but will soon want—and want badly, so mind the following tips if you plan on shopping on eBay without risking your children’s inheritance or your marriage. I’m going to use pens to illustrate my points, but these tips can apply as well to cameras, shoes, bags, bikes, or whatever floats your boat.

1. Know what you’re looking for—know the product and its current market value. Do some research beforehand and establish what possible issues there might be with the item. For example, if you’re looking for a Montblanc, understand that vintage celluloid ones in good shape could command more than new ones in “precious resin”—but also that the 149 and 146 are the most faked pens in the world (along with the Parker Sonnet); eBay actually has a guide to determining fake MBs (which means, know your way around eBay as well). EBay’s “completed listings” is a great way to determine market value—look for the median price (discard lowest and highest prices) for a better sense of what you can expect to pay. Check other websites (Amazon, BestBuy, etc.) as well, because their special deals and offers could undercut eBay. I do most of my gadget shopping, for example, on

2. Condition, condition, condition. In your enthusiasm for an item, you might forget to probe its condition. Read the description very well and look out for any flaws. Especially scrutinize all the pictures. (This also allows me to spot special features that others might miss—a broad stub on a nib, for example). I think I know pens well enough that I can tell make, model, year, and approximate value for most major brands on sight, but every pen is still unique once it’s up for sale. Keep an eye out for cracks, glue, broken tines, mismatched caps and barrels, discoloration, etc.

3. Set up a PayPal account. It will make your life a whole lot easier on the Internet, since PayPal has become a global standard for electronic payments. I’ve tied my PayPal to a specific bank account I use only for eBay transactions. Is it safe? Of course you’ll hear a horror story here and there, but in my own experience, eBay and PayPal have served me very well, settling questions and disputes and sending refunds very quickly in the rare cases of non-delivery I’ve encountered.

4. Keep looking. Since I now buy and sell pens, I check out eBay many times a day—I have it on my phone—and have set up search terms for my favorite items, like Parker Vacumatics. This enables me to find what I like quickly, in a marketplace where millions of items are up for sale at any given moment. Some of my best bargains have come when buyers in the US—my chief competitors—are literally asleep. I also check out and (the UK and Canada) and have found some of my best bargains there. The first thing I check is “newly listed”, further narrowed down to “buy it now”—this way I can catch the real bargains before anyone else does. Then I check “ending soonest.” You can also refine your searches, for example by looking just for “149” under “Montblanc” under “fountain pens.”

5. Check the seller’s feedback. I’d be wary of a seller with less than 95% positive feedback. He or she may not be a cheat, but has a poor service record (delayed mailings, no response, etc.)

6. Establish your bidding threshold early on. Don’t get caught in a bidding war with another bidder. These days, since I could be bidding on 20 items at any given moment (expecting to win maybe two or three), I just bid my maximum and forget about it until the last two minutes, which are really all that matters on eBay. Some people use sniping programs that let the computer make a last-second automated bid for them; I should, but have been too lazy to set one up, and I rather like the excitement of making the last-minute bid myself.

7. Figure out and factor in your shipping options. Since most of my purchases are made in the US, I use a US shipping address (my sister’s in Virginia) and aggregate my purchases there. When I’ve gathered a boxful, I ask my sister to ship them to Johnny Air Cargo in NYC, which forwards them to me in Manila a week later. I’m sure many of you have US relatives who can do this for you (just make sure that they’re willing—be very nice to them at Christmas). I’ve educated my sister on pens so she’ll know how to check out a pen when it arrives and how to handle and package them properly; and yes, I’ve given her a nice pen or two.

8. Pay promptly, and leave feedback. You’ll see how your own feedback will improve once you become a good eBay netizen.

9. If and when you encounter a problem, report it to eBay. They have mechanisms for dealing with problems like getting a defective item (unless it was so described) or not receiving an item you paid for at all. Take note that there’s a time window (45 days, I believe) within which complaints can be filed.

10. Don’t lose hope. I’ve lost out on bids for items that I’d coveted for years, but then found another one a week later, for cheaper. If you can’t find it on eBay, it probably doesn’t exist, or is illegal to own. For me, it’s fountain pen paradise, and another reason to wake up in the morning for.

Flashback No. 3: The Anti-Rant Rant

Penman for Monday, August 6, 2007 

(This went viral when I first came out with it five years ago, and I’m republishing it here to show that, hey, we haven’t changed one bit!)

IT COULD be that I’m just getting old, but lately I’ve been dismayed and depressed by the state of manners on the Internet. I help moderate a message board ( that now has over 9,000 members, and I’m a member myself of several more such virtual hangouts devoted to everything from electronic gadgets like iPods and Palm PDAs to fountain pens and heritage conservation. (The one thing I avoid, perhaps surprisingly, is any public forum made up of writers and wannabe writers, for reasons you’ll find shortly.)

Our Apple users and fans club (that’s basically what it is) has been a generally pleasant and helpful group, ever ready to dispense free and quick advice about everything from the difference between SATA and PATA drives and between FireWire 400 and USB 2.0 (and, of course, between Mac OS X and Windows Whatever). But some weeks on the board can be more vexatious than others, and last week was one of those, with an inordinate number of people, it seemed to me, venting their assorted resentments, rages, and anxieties, caring little if their rants produced or provoked similarly negative vibes in others.

Never mind what those specific issues were; they matter little to anyone but geeks. It wasn’t the questions or issues that disturbed me so much as the way they were raised and pursued—often with undisguised meanness, if not malice aforethought, and with no concessions to diplomacy, compromise, and good-natured humor. Indeed, what used to be the domain and the art of ironic humor has been taken over by sarcasm and verbal battery.

It isn’t just on this message board I moderate, either; it’s all over the Internet, this creeping outbreak of ill will and gutter behavior that ironically seems to afflict those with the money and the education to buy computers and get DSL service. Over at another forum I frequent—devoted to the arcane pursuit of fountain pen collecting—two grown men were bashing each other a couple of weeks ago over, believe it or not, the exact configuration of solid-gold 1940s Sheaffer pens. Here’s how part of that discussion went:

“I would be most interested in your assertion that in general, a sample size of 0.1% of the subject population cannot produce a statistically significant result. Merely characterizing a survey’s characteristics as ‘lunacy’ without providing a shred of supporting math is, to put it mildly, uncompelling, and your embedded assertion that the ratio of sample size to population is the determinant of statistical significance calls into question your grasp of statistical theory.”

That, at least, was an intelligent and even illuminating if occasionally pungent debate. (The other side responded: ‘Your penchant for avoiding the issue being discussed and branching off on some tangent is pretty typical of your discourse. Try and stay focused.”) Most “flame wars”—as these long-distance quarrels are called—employ considerably blunter language, chiefly because, I suspect, the antagonists possess the linguistic skills of ten-year-olds, and in many cases are just a bit older. Endearments like “Moron!” routinely get exchanged in these flame wars, which erupt with the spontaneity of a scuffle in the schoolyard during recess, usually between boys trying to sound like men, and also usually over the presumption of some exotic expertise, although I’ve yet to witness a flame war over prescriptions to end global hunger.

It’s in the nature of the Internet, of course, to host these brutal and often unrefereed skirmishes. Some surfers see the Internet as an open and wide frontier where no rules obtain and manners don’t matter. The Web’s anonymity encourages boorishness, recklessness, and other behavior that might land you in court, in jail, or in the hospital in the real world. People tend to shoot their mouths off and say the cruelest things online because there’s no sense of public accountability. Slinging mud from behind an alias, you can’t get sued, you can’t get slugged, and your mother won’t even know.

Some people mistakenly presume that what’s said on the Internet will stay there. (Well, here’s proof that it won’t; there’s no such thing as an online whisper—and, surprise, print still matters.) I’ll bet anything that the people in my forum who feel alluded to in this piece will be caterwauling again tomorrow, to screech that I dragged their private plaints and torments out into the open—as if posting a message that could reach 9,000 members weren’t public enough.

Now, we didn’t need the Internet to realize that the world is full of idiots and bigots, and that most of us, yours truly included, will occasionally be a bit of both, given the right astral configuration and the way we wake up in the morning. One thing I happen to be openly and proudly biased about is Apple and nearly anything that rolls out of its Cupertino, CA plant. (And yes, friends, I’ll be first in line for the iPhone when they release it here next year.) But when Apple drops the ball—as, like any other big company, it will from time to time—there will be no louder complainers than we the faithful, who should justly feel abandoned and betrayed. So admittedly we’re not immune to these seizures of what will seem to others a silly passion, and now and then we might even raise our voices in defense of a block of plastic.

But that’s entertainment, and it has little to do with the witless vitriol that I’ve been catching around the Web—again, not only here, and not only now. Years ago, almost when the Internet was just beginning to take root in this country, I joined an online group of Filipino writers based here and in the US, and for a time that exchange proved useful and cordial. But as the group grew in size and variety, the chemistry changed; one day I found myself being savaged by a fellow I’d never met and never heard of, for some strange reason I couldn’t figure out. It wasn’t worth the aggravation; I had better things to do than to explain or defend my writing and myself to complete strangers, and I swore from then on to limit my Web time to things I could enjoy as a respite from literature, which I reserved to my private practice.

But even in literature—and especially in its newest form, the blog—it seems that ranting has taken over prose and poetry. Many blogs are amusing, a few are highly informative and thought-provoking, but a vast multitude barely get beyond retching, whining, venting, cursing, and putting everybody else down.

Aside from the pervasive meanness, I’ve been bothered by another recurrent note in the message traffic: the brazen sense of entitlement that many young people seem to possess and brandish, almost like a weapon. Over at PhilMUG, we’ve had an 18-year-old brashly demanding that someone give him/her (on the Web, where people use pseudonymous nicknames or “handles”, you never know) a free computer. “Gimme a Mac!” cried this newbie in his/her very first post. “I damn need one!”

In this “gimme, gimme, gimme” culture, the world owes everyone a Lamborghini, and people don’t need to work or suffer for the things they want. All they have to do is scream like they did for their baby food, and the object of their desire should appear at their feet and make mewling sounds. If it doesn’t, then that’s good enough reason for another rant.

Forgive me if I suspect that these are people—many of them in their surly mid-twenties—who’ve never been truly whacked by life over the head, who’ve never laid their lives on the line for a cause larger than themselves, who’ve never stared into the barrel of a gun, who’ve never spent a day in jail, and whose daily crises consist of having to choose between the mocha latte and the cappuccino.

Thankfully, some of them grow up. I once had a student who kept loudly complaining that the Palanca Awards for Literature were rigged, because he joined them year after year and never won a thing. Surely there was some grand conspiracy to deny him his due. When I could no longer stand his whining, I lost my temper in public (think of it as doing a Pinatubo after 600 years of dormancy) and suggested to him, perhaps a bit too sharply, that the simpler reason for his spectacular string of losses was to be found in himself. (I could’ve added—meaning no offense to the generous Palancas—that with the number of prize categories open at that time, any fool and his dog was bound to win one sooner or later, if you just submitted enough entries with the consistency of a parking-ticket dispenser.) Well, either my sermon challenged his spirit or his number was up, but he soon won a Palanca, and I was truly happy for him; I doubt that he’ll be thinking the same sullen thoughts now.

A few weeks ago, I had occasion to discuss the poetry of Anne Sexton in class, and if you know anything about her—apart from her plaintively powerful poetry—it would be the inescapable fact that she committed suicide, in 1974. A beautiful and brilliant woman, Sexton had grappled with her demons all her life, and took to poetry as a means of taming them. She would even write that “Poetry, after all, is the opposite of suicide.” That she ultimately took her own life doesn’t detract from the quality and the legacy of her poetry. (In “Wanting to Die,” she would say that “… Suicides have a special language. / Like carpenters they want to know which tools. / They never ask why build.”) This leads me to think that those who can write poetry, do; those who can’t, rant.

Can’t the world use a little kvetching, however inartistic? Sure, it can—it had better, or otherwise we’ll end up wallowing in treacly (and very possibly shallow) good feelings. But there’s a difference between the ranter who just rants, and the ranter who disses the world then picks up a chisel or a compass to change it—or a pen, to write beautifully and even blissfully of one’s pain, ultimately to transform it into something more valuable and enduring than this season’s hemline or tomorrow’s gadget.