I wanted to get my shopping done before the crowds arrived, so I pulled into the computer show at Maryland State Fairgrounds at 9:20 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
A couple of thousand other people had the same idea. At an hour when most sane people were reading the newspaper over their second cup of coffee, the main parking lot was already full, and the grass lot in front of the fairgrounds was jammed.
I finally found a space back behind the swine shed. Luckily, it was unoccupied. The 4-H'ers weren't due in for another week. A shopper's wife was hunched over the rail in one of the pens, poring over a math textbook. "It's the only quiet place around," she said. "I can get some work done."
Not far away, the flea market was in full swing under a hot summer sun. From folding tables and the tailgates of campers, dealers had set up their version of memory lane, hawking old Ataris, Radio Shack Model Is, TI Silent 700s, Timex-Sinclairs, Commodore 64s, ancient disk drives and forgotten printers.
There were dozens of tables groaning with mysterious cables, circuit boards, connectors and chips. While one dealer sold memory at $35 a megabyte, his daughters did a brisk business in cold lemonade at 25 cents a glass. There were bins full of remote controls, ham radios from the McCarthy era and boxes full of low-mileage, one-owner Nintendo games.
It was tempting, but my business was in the exhibition hall, where a contest was going on between new-equipment retailers trying to part the crowd from its money and a crowd that seemed even more anxious to part with it.
There's no doubt that computer shows have become big business. Once the realm of hackers and tweakers, they've become community events. They're good places to find bargains -- if you're careful -- as well as wonderful sources of hardware and software that you won't find on most retailers' shelves.
In most metropolitan areas, you'll find several computer shows a year. Some are operated by local organizations, others by companies that set up regional show circuits, hiring exhibition halls and renting booths to local dealers. Generally, show organizers advertise in the classified sections of newspapers. If you go to one show and fill out a sign-up card, the company will put you on a mailing list and you'll receive notices of future shows.
A word of caution here. If you're looking for your first computer system and don't know what you're doing, a computer show isn't a great place to begin.
While the vast majority of dealers at these shows are reputable businessmen and women who assemble their own machines, they compete on price and the quality of their hardware, not on shopper service. Like horse-traders, they expect you to know your stuff. They aren't into hand-holding.
By far the riskiest proposition for buyers at a show is a full computer system, but if you learn enough to understand what you're looking for, it doesn't have to be a real gamble. Figure out what you want ahead of time: what kind of processor, how fast, how much disk storage and memory, what kind of video board. You won't find brand names here. Computers are sold and priced by their specifications. Then shop around.
At the outset, make sure the dealer you've picked has a storefront address; the better ones will post signs or banners. Many sellers will be from out-of-town. For example, Baltimore shows frequently attract dealers from Washington, Wimington, Del., and Philadelphia. They follow the computer show circuit, and I've seen the same faces at shows for years.
But be aware that that buying a system from one of these retailers is like buying a mail-order machine. If something goes wrong, you'll have to ship the computer back.
One way to avoid this potential problem is to find a local retailer with a booth at the show. Some retailers attend shows in their communities because they don't want to lose your business, and they'll often reduce prices to meet the cutthroat competition.
Less risky than a computer system from the buyer's standpoint is anything that's shrink-wrapped, because you always have the manufacturer's warranty to fall back on.
If you're looking for a hard disk, a multimedia kit, video board or printer, you'll find plenty of them, usually at rock-bottom prices, along with an incredible collection of cables, connectors and other hardware. Because there are so many dealers, you'll also find a greater variety than you will at any single retailer. For example, I wanted to buy a Maxtor hard drive to match the drive in my system. Instead of making the rounds of local store fronts or calling a mail-order company to find one that stocked Maxtor equipment, I was able to find a dealer at the show who had just the drive I wanted, at a reasonable price.
You can also find great software bargains at computer shows. There will always be a half-dozen shareware vendors, selling disks full of try-before-you-buy programs at $1 or $2 a pop, something you won't find at local retailers because the markup is too small.
You can also find good prices on commercial programs, although the selection probably won't be as good as a local retailer's.
I know some bargain hunters who prowl the show bins, looking for outdated but shrink-wrapped versions of expensive programs selling for a few cents on the dollar. They register the original program with the publisher and then upgrade to the latest version for much less than they would have paid at retail.
CD-ROM shoppers will find a gold mine at computer shows. The last couple of shows I've attended have had an amazing variety of compact disk software, including dozens of titles I haven't seen in stores.
For $19, I picked up a copy of Mad Dog McCree, the CD version of a terrific video arcade shoot-em-up that uses real B-movie actors on real B-movie sets.
Many show dealers manage to get their hands on CD-ROM bundles originally intended for packaging with computer systems, and they sell the disks individually at low prices.
Be careful with the kids, though. Don't just give them cash and tell them to buy what they like. Show dealers often carry adult CDs with graphic sexual content that aren't available in stores. As a rule, they won't sell these to youngsters, but it's still a good idea to supervise the kids' purchases.