I have a guilty secret—one that I suspect I share with millions of computer-owning Americans, possibly even some on this website. I am addicted to eBay. Or I was, anyway. I tried cutting back and when that didn't work, I went cold turkey. Needless to say, I was a buyer, not a seller. Selling things on eBay is a form of honest toil, and an answer to under-employment, like taking in boarders during the Great Depression. For buyers, eBay is a vast and intriguing bazaar, its self-declared mission to "help practically anyone trade practically anything on Earth." In other words, whatever you've got, some damn fool will buy it. Me, for example.
I started out browsing the "Antiques" category, where I often found things for much less than they would sell for in a store. Brass gooseneck lamps from the early 1900s, for example. A steal! Never mind that they needed rewiring and industrial-strength polishing and also the shades were dented. Heavy old convent sheets from France, too scratchy to ever sleep on but useful for . . . something. And a Mexican ex voto, a captioned devotional painting thanking a patron saint for help in a sticky situation. When my ex voto arrived, after I'd won it in a fierce bidding war, it looked somewhat new for an antique. But I found the story it told irresistible; the painting had been commissioned by a mother in thanks for her daughter's recovery from a broken heart.
From antiques I moved on to jewelry. For a time I became a patron of a young woman who gave her name as Jade Bible, and who made luminous glass bracelets, like none I'd ever seen. I bought a bunch of them for myself and for gifts and in the process of emailing back and forth got to know a little about Jade. She lived on a hilltop in Kentucky, I learned, and when her mother-in-law was unavailable she had babysitter problems. My picture of her as part of a traditional, church-going family was jolted one day she when said she was getting a divorce and would not be able to get to her studio for a while. After that, she vanished completely, owing me a bracelet. (Jade, if you're out there . . .)
Despite this disappointment, what helped draw me to eBay, was the diversity of characters I encountered. In the early days, especially, sellers would tell stories as a way of establishing the provenance of their goods: some old glass cabinet pulls were for sale because "my husband is renovating our early 1900s Victorian house in San Francisco to make way for a larger kitchen."
For a long time, I justified my obsession with eBay on anthropological grounds. The thousands of sellers were contributors to a sort of a collective autobiography, which I found fascinating. But that rationalization wore thin and in the end I had to face the truth. It was time to call my immoderate eBay usage for what it really was: compulsive shopping.