The hidden lives of classified advertisements

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The Independent Culture
SMALL ADS pages are to the Nineties what car boot sales were to the Eighties: popular marketplaces which somehow catch the enthusiasms of the moment. Economic recovery may be halting on the high street, but in the world of classified advertising there is a boom. Newspapers report spectacular increases in classified volume, and there is a burgeoning genre of specialist publications (Loot, Trade It, Bargain Buy) entirely devoted to selling second-hand goods. Most of the latter are in tabloid format, with up to 100 pages of local bargains, usually advertised free (the revenue comes from copies sold). A recent issue of the Manchester, Cheshire & Lancashire Loot - part of a thriving national chain of Loots - claimed to hold more than 14,000 adverts.

"You're missing out the middle-man, so it's a much cheaper way of buying and selling," says Icky Hasnain of the London editions of Loot, which has weekly sales of around 200,000. "It's one of the purest forms of market. If you advertise something above what is considered the market price, it won't sell, unless you are extremely lucky."

There are drawbacks. Small ads can attract conmen to people's homes, and - a bigger problem - can be used for shifting stolen goods (the police are regular readers). But for most enthusiasts these are small worries. Far more important is the prospect - irresistible to buyers and sellers alike - of a good deal. And reading the classifieds admits you to a new world of mystery and promise, complete with its own tantalising vocabulary: "as new", "unwanted gift", "genuine reason for sale", "VGC" and so on. ("VGC" means "very good condition", which means, as often as not, "not very good condition".)

Icky Hasnain collects the stranger ads from London's Loot. The best include: "DALEK, full size, good working condition, flashing lights, seat inside, can demonstrate"; "HAMSTER CAGE, with extension, good condition, no callers named Brian please"; "BEDSIT, close to bus-stop, suit non-smoking professional interested in penguins"; "GARDEN GNOME, Bob Marley, Rastafarian, hand- painted, plays theme to 'No Woman, No Cry'." Where else can you find words used so sparely, to such suggestive effect?

GUY MELLOR, stockbroker, London (Loot). "I'm selling it because the baby destroys everything. Some who answered the ad were the equivalent of train-spotters; they could reel off all the different models. One guy talked for almost an hour while I showed him my record collection, but he didn't want the turntable. When I bought the stereo I was a student, so it has sentimental value. I'm thinking of updating to CD, but I'll wait because of the baby."

TONY CLAY, advertising agency manager, Bristol (Trade It). "She's nicknamed 'Dirty Doreen'. I used to drive around with her on the back seat of my car and she'd create quite a stir with people rubber- necking. She's a work of art, not really dirty or anything - the friend who made her was an art college student at the time. In a way, she's a symbol of my bachelorhood, so I think she's got to go now that I'm getting married. It'll be a sad parting, though"

MARK ELSON, warehouse supervisor, Bristol (Trade It). "This baby owl was bred in my back garden - it's six-and-a-half weeks old and will soon fly. I hand-reared it and have been feeding it microwaved chicks. There were four others which have all gone. They're ugly when they're little but they grow into the prettiest owls. I won't sell to anyone untrustworthy - I've turned away half those who've had a look. All my birds are British Bird Council registered."

BERNARD HANDFORD, retired chewing gum firm employee, Bristol (Bargain Buy). "I've been collecting German militaria for 20 years. I like the smartness of the uniforms - it's an aesthetic thing. You have to be careful not to be seen as a Nazi sympathiser - I don't condone German action in the war. This helmet has a 1935 droop-eagle pattern. I've got tired of it and want to buy something else."

CHRIS POWERS, engineering firm worker, Rochdale (Loot). "I've had a few calls from Beatles memorabilia collectors, but they're not interested because it's not in pristine condition. It's a bit scuffed but it plays OK. Love Me Do was the Beatles' first British release on a 45rpm - PS I Love You is on the B-side. pounds 15 is good value. I've been a Beatles fan since they started."

JUNE SHEPHERD, housewife, Lancashire (Southport Visitor). "I admire Mrs Thatcher, but I ordered two book-club copies by mistake. I've had the ad out for ages, but I haven't had a single inquiry. Everything I've put in the paper before has sold quickly. Perhaps there aren't many other Thatcherites around. I'll buy her next book, but I won't buy two copies this time, though."

KENNETH YOUNG, law student (Edinburgh Herald & Post). "The bagpipes are by Peter Henderson, one of the most sought-after makers. They're made out of ivory and African black wood. I'm not a bad player; I've won prizes in the Highland Games and at one stage almost turned professional. But I'm planning to go back-packing around the Middle East, and I'm short of cash."

DENISE CRESSWELL, secretary, Bristol (Bargain Buy). "I saw a porce1ain frog in a gift shop and thought: 'Oh, that looks cute.' So I bought it. Before I knew it I had a proper collection going. I've got all sorts of frogs: teapots, towel racks, ash-trays, money-boxes, candle- holders - even a bath plug. I'm reluctant to get rid of them; I'd prefer it if they all went to one person."

PAUL HOLT, promotion and publications company director, London (Loot). "The ad is a cry from the heart, and it hasn't worked. I had one call from a spotty-sounding kid, but he wasn't what I had in mind. I'm looking for a band of people my age that might play at pubs two or three nights a month. 'Bolly' is meant to read 'Bowie', and there are other typos, which don't help."

DOROTHEA ROSE, teacher (Richmond and Twickenham Times). "I mentioned the hat was from Harrods for the snob value. Nobody has come to look at it; if they did I'd be a bit embarrassed. This may sound pathetic, but I really look forward to the paper coming out. It gives me a buzz selling things, and I'm fascinated with meeting new people. I'm not in it for the money."

DANIEL STEWART, supervisor at tyre and exhaust firm, Edinburgh (Scottish Supermart). "We've just moved in and we didn't like the bathroom - it was too old-fashioned. Instead of throwing it away we thought we could sell it. It has original taps which are dated 1938. I haven't had any calls yet. I'm disappointed, but I expect that somebody out there will eventually ring."

MAXINE JOHNSON, youth worker, singer, poet and designer, London (Loot). "The sofa was my first real piece of furniture; I designed it a special cover. I'll be sad to see it go. My tastes are changing and I'm re-styling the flat. One woman is interested, but I've got to wait till she arranges transportation. After I placed the ad, it took three days before there were calls."

GARY AITKEN, post office driver (Edinburgh Herald & Post). "I bought it on the spur of the moment. I would play for three or four hours after work. Sometimes I would go on as late as two in the morning. I'm a keen golfer and the game's helped my real play. But I've been playing so much I thought I should get rid of it. I think my girlfriend will be glad to see the back of it."

CASS AUSTIN, recently made redundant as software dealer, London (Loot). "I've had 40 inquiries, but no takers, as it needs some repair work. I need money to pay bills now I'm unemployed. Selling it is soul- destroying. And I've had one nasty moment as a result of the ad: when I wasn't looking, a viewer stole 50p from the sideboard. I mean, is 50p worth it? It's silly, but it bugged me."

JUNE GOSLING, pensioner (Bristol Evening Post). "I'm waiting to move into a new council flat because a gang has been picking on me. They smashed one gnome, ripped out my plants and beat me up. I live alone and haven't got the strength to deal with them. I don't want my photo taken, in case they recognise me. In a perfect world, my gnomes and I could live in peace."

MARILYN BEAVER, glass restorer (Edinburgh Herald & Post) "We used to have crowds of kids around; it was like running a pool hall. I'd like to get rid of it; it takes up a whole room. It weighs a ton. It should be coin-operated, but the mechanism broke - now we just stick old newspapers in the pockets to get the balls back. I can't say that I'll be sad to see it go."