New York Diary: The world's greatest jumble sale

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The Independent Culture
ONE MIGHT hope that Manhattan would be untouched by this winter's anti-urban and somewhat depressing new trend, shopping online. But lately New York's fashion class has started looking online at the Web auction house eBay for what they call "Eames-era" drinking glasses, thrift- store paintings and barely worn Tocca dresses. "It is fashionable in New York circles," says Judith Newman, a New York-based writer who recently documented her obeissance to eBay in The New York Times.

"I like it for its anonymity. I'm a mild-mannered, passive person, but on eBay I become a shopping warrior," declares Newman. "Men like it because they can collect according to their mania without feeling precious and `arty.'"

On eBay, one can sell anything, as long as it's legal and the company takes up to five per cent of each sale. One can bid on the hundreds of thousands of objects on the site, and the highest bidder wins. The company claims that there have been 155 million bids on over 40 million items in just over three years.

"My friends are mostly New York writers and they shop on eBays," says Nancy Kalish, a Brooklyn writer, who spends two hours a week on it. "We talk about bidding strategy, debating whether or not it's better to come in strong early in a bid."

Upper East Sider Diane MacFarlane hangs around Ebay's Jewelry Chatroom, and Jerry Spiegler, a New York New Media attorney who collects mid-century Italian and German art pottery, logs on constantly to search for additional pieces of work. He's bought nearly 300 items in the last year and a half.

But what does it mean, now that Newman and the rest are exhibiting their collectivitis at this on-line jumble sale? What of New York's real streets teeming with antique stores and markets? After all, in what was once Manhattan's Little Italy and is now NoLiTa, you can find the same astral 60's lamps, bad amateur paintings that have been given upmarket status because of their resemblance to contemporary painters, and vintage couches re-upholstered in "the Prada fabric" that you can find on eBay, only in nicer condition.

But it's the very ubiquity of upscale kitsch in Manhattan, with all the stores that specialise in a certain make of 50's blonde furniture and know the appeal of 60's Grove Press paperbacks and 80's East Village literary magazines, that's inspiring many New Yorkers to enter America's virtual shopping world.

Ebay's Beanie Baby enthusiasts, doll-house doyens, and more marginal collectors, like the dominatrix who bought a Minnie Mouse purse on eBay for her slave, seem rusticated in comparision.

I must confess that I hope to encounter North Carolinians and Nebraskans selling their ancient board games and Mason jars cheaply and unironically, and I stare at the photos of green plastic lamps in someone's house in Virginia with a co-optive zeal.

Kalish says that her best deal was buying a Mission-style mirror "from a woman in Kentucky for half the price it would have cost from an antique store." Spiegler, meanwhile, wound up buying some post-war pottery on eBay for $40 from a naive seller before making a tidy profit by reselling it in the virtual auction house for $200. It took a New York freelance journalist named Todd Levin to bring irony to eBay. Recently, Levin attended an award ceremony for the Cool Website of the Year, and collected eBay's prize for "coolest shopping site," though he had no relation to the company. Levin then sold eBay's award - on eBay itself.

eBay is at: