Car Boot Sale Cameras – The Promise, The Chase And The Sobering Truth

One of the great British traditions during the warmer months of the year is a Sunday morning car boot sale.

Anything from a handful to a few hundred sellers load up their cars and head to a local field or school playground, with the possessions they no longer love, need or can be bothered to take to the tip.

Fold up and makeshift tables are assembled, and their unwanted items are arranged and labelled – or sometimes just dumped unceremoniously in small piles – in the hope that someone else there might find treasure in their junk, and give them enough money to have made the whole venture worthwhile.

Meanwhile, the scent of charred burger meat and chip fat, perhaps combined with the sickly sweet hue of candy floss, starts to fill their nostrils, and clouds hover threateningly above, to complete the stage for the day.

I remember first going to a few boot sales with my dad when I was perhaps eight or nine years old.

He was selling, his latest attempt to make some extra money on the side, and the feeling I recall most is being curious about why half of the items had even made it to the sale, so lacking was their appeal to a young boy where the only currency that mattered was Lego, Action Man, and Star Wars figures.

In the last five years or so I’ve attended maybe one or two sales a year, and have occasionally picked up some toys or games for our children that we’ve enjoyed.

But alas I’ve never found those elusive original versions of Princess Leia in Bespin gown or Han Solo in Hoth fatigues that I longed for but never had 30(ish) years previously, or a working Commodore Amiga like those which used to entice me from the front covers of gaming magazines, as I made do with my more humble, but in retrospect ground breaking and new electronic era defining (for me) Commodore 64.

On the camera front, my car boot pickings have been more slim.

I imagine there are hundreds, even thousands of photographers – especially those who collect cameras or just enjoy using ones that aren’t cutting edge and the price of a small car – who head to the boot sales with the same flickering hope.

The hope that they might discover some beautiful under appreciated gem of an old camera amidst the chintzy chipped porcelain, outgrown toys, mountains of baby clothes, dusty and rusting tools, sun faded DVDs and exercise equipment used just once since it was bought circa 1989.

The best I’ve done I think is an Olympus AF10 Super for 50p, haggled down from a whole pound.

It’s a neat little film camera, but not worth anything more, and far from one of the best film compacts I’ve ever used (try a Pentax Espio instead).

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For the serious bargain hunter, I think what people tend to forget with car boot sales is the combined cost and effort.

You have to get to them, and then pay an entry fee, which can be a reasonable 50p or £1, but sometimes £3-5.

Adding in your fuel costs, and the overall time the experience takes, you’d need to find some pretty special cameras on a consistent basis to make it worthwhile – financially or otherwise.

And even if you did luck upon something of high value for only a few pounds, the chances are that you’ve already visited a dozen other car boot sales and returned empty handed, so the overall hit rate is pretty dismal.

It has to be a labour of love, you have to be in it for the adventure, not the prize at the end that’s rarely won.

What I do enjoy to some extent with a boot sale though, is that potential and the promise.

That you might just find something special that brings a smile to your face, and a quickening of your heart beat.

Plus I like that you’re rummaging about amongst unusual individual items, each already with their own history, rather than simply plucking something brand new and mass produced from a shop shelf, and after opening it, wondering (again) why they don’t make things like they used to.

With cameras this sense is amplified, as you wonder what sights its lens has seen, what celebrations it’s captured, whose hands it’s been held in. 

So as spring approaches, I may visit one or two car boot sales this year, but my expectations are next to nothing.

And really, for me, those parts that do appeal about the boot sales I can easily replicate from the comfort of my own home, via a little website called eBay.

The core attraction of eBay is the same for me – stumbling across an unloved old camera for the price of a fancy sandwich (or a couple of those well done boot sale burgers van burgers and a stick of candy floss on the side), and finding it quite delightful to use.

But with eBay the choice is so much wider, and searching is so much easier.

Can you imagine if eBay had no search functions or categories and you had to scroll through EVERY SINGLE ITEM to see if you were interested in it?

This is essentially what a car boot sale feels like, albeit on a smaller scale, with merely dozens of sellers, rather than bazillions.

Maybe this is the genius of eBay.

That it appeals to that same fundamental desire in so many of use to discover treasure amongst trash, something unique and eminently affordable in amidst the oceans of plastic faceless consumer fodder we’re fed every day from all directions?

And maybe it gives us a glimpse into some kind of tiny portal back to a time when cameras only had the controls you need and didn’t offer to navigate your way home, iron your shirt and make you a cup of tea, whilst casually rattling out 72 images of 42 MegaPixels in a mere fraction of a second at the same time.

How about you, do you enjoy a car boot sale (garage sale, yard sale, jumble sale or whatever other equivalents there are round your way)? What have been your best finds?

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking.

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12 thoughts on “Car Boot Sale Cameras – The Promise, The Chase And The Sobering Truth”

  1. I haven’t been to a yard sale (the US equivalent of a car boot sale) in probably 20 years, and I quit going for many of the reasons you describe. eBay is just so much more efficient.

    1. I do get that some people just love the browsing aspect, and chatting with the sellers about the history of the items and so on. I’d rather have the near-anonymous clinical eBay transaction though, ha ha!

  2. I think the most similar thing we have here on the east coast of the us is the flea market. We live near the biggest one in the country that happens three times a year, and it is one of my favorite places to take pictures. I used to find interesting equipment there years ago, but I literally can’t remember the last time I found a bargain camera there. It was years ago. I think most of it goes on eBay now. As a buyer the big attraction of eBay is that if the item is a lemon, it can be returned no questions asked. I have done so a handful of times over 18 years, a pretty good track record. As a seller, that is also the big drawback.

    1. Yeh that can be a pain for a seller. I used to sell quite a bit of camera stuff, and had a few occasions where I sold stuff I knew was in great condition, but was obviously old, like a 40 year old lens or something, and the buyer would be complaining about two tiny specks of dust that I had mentioned in the listing and had zero impact on the final image anyway… Just got to the point of not being worth the hassle.

  3. Oh how things have changed! Almost my entire collection of film cameras came from the North American boot sale equivalent, the garage/yard sale. Or flea markets. This was my Dad and myself buying – and it goes back 50 years now. In the time since, we saw the pickings slim out and the quality of goods in general decline. A few of the more select purchases were made through Shutterbug Ads, a newspaper-like publication that came monthly by subscription, through the tedious business of mail-order-by-cheque.
    Even 20 years ago my wife and I would drive about to the sales on a weekend, finding a few items of interest now and then (only one camera ever, though). But the sales thinned out and the cost of all that travel became prohibitive even if there was still any place to go.
    E-bay is fine for them as can get things; it’s another sign of how society has changed. But I’m rather glad I don’t actively collect anymore.

    1. I read a very enthusiastic post on another photo blog last year I think, saying what a bargain camera the author had found after years of looking, and how much money they’d saved. But they didn’t take into account al the time and money they’d spent going to the hundreds of sales that didn’t yield any reward. It was so short sighted.

      It’s like spending a million pounds on lottery tickets, to win back £100,000. You’re not £100,000 up, you’re £900,000 down!

      The “problem” I see with any collection is how/where to stop, unless it is a specific set of something with a finite number of items.

  4. Thanks for explaining what a car boot sale is, I had been wondering since I have seen that term used before without explanation… I’ve been to something like you describe (complete with sausage and burgers) when walking around in Lisbon a few years back – but there was no entrance fee. I didn’t find anything of interest…
    In the US, the yard sale isn’t anything close (it’s done by one family on their own home’s driveway, maybe another close neighbor will join to make it 2 families) – at least that is how it works here in Georgia). I think the closest thing we have, and it’s still not very close, is a church yard sale, where all members of a community join with their unloved belongings set on tables at the church parking lot and all proceeds go to some charitable cause. I haven’t attended one of those yet as they are not very common and when I’ve seen one it wasn’t at a time when I could stop.
    We have thrift stores here (I think you call them charity shops there) – but these are mostly frequented by people who hunt for things to resell on ebay for a profit. So it’s rare to find anything of value anymore, it gets grabbed pretty quickly. The only thing I know I can find is out-of-fashion things that I still have a lot of use for – like slow cookers and bread machines (those get used almost daily in our house until they break down from heavy use! I already have another bread maker in the garage for when the current one breaks… which could be anytime now)
    You also can’t find anything camera related other than broken film point and shoots, sometimes broken digital point and shoots as well (with no batteries or charger…) Anything camera-wise of value gets put on ebay by the stores themselves I guess, or in the case of the big thrift chain called Goodwill, on shopgoodwill.com.
    Good thing I think I now have pretty much everything I need from the golden manual focus era…

    1. Chris it’s much the same here with the charity shops. Very few seem to display cameras anymore, I guess few people are interested in old cameras compared to something like books or DVDs which earn their shelf space more.

      I’ve thought about going round a few local ones and asking if they can let me know of any cameras they get in, so I became their kind of in house camera trader, bought any good ones for myself and advised on a reasonable price to sell the others at. But I’ve never followed it through.

      Yes the car boot sale is literally named that because people fill up the boot of their car (you might cal it trunk?) with their old stuff then literally sell out of it at the sale, often with a flimsy table in front of it to display their wares a little more enticingly.

      For some items, like kids’ toys and games, you can still pick up some bargains if people have older children and they just want to get quickly rid of their old toys to make space for the new.

  5. Dan, I had Bespin Leia and Hoth Han, LOL. Sadly, I handed down all of my Star Wars stuff to my step-brother like a dummy…

    I stopped going to garage sales for the same reasons. Really just a lot of junk. I did stop a few months ago and scored a minty Kodak VR35 K12 for $6. The original Kodak UltraLife 9V was still in it and working!

    eBay is starting to lose its appeal to me due to the number of folks that buy cameras to “flip” who know little-to-nothing about them. The most common phrase seen is, “I don’t know how to test it” and they are generally asking top dollar because they know film cameras are resurgent.

    Your timing on this post is fun since I’m going to be in Dublin next week and was thinking about trying to find a boot sale, just for fun.

    1. No! I envy you Rob! As a kid I had a limited budget, which perhaps could afford a new figure per month, if that, plus extra stuff I got for birthdays and Christmas.

      I remember looking through the Argos catalogue (a store where you order from a catalogue and pick up in stores that are 90% warehouse stockroom and 10% shop space) or the Freemans catalogue (a purely mail order catalogue where items were more expensive but you could pay off weekly or monthly, before credit cards were so mainstream). They published two catalogues a year, spring/summer and autumn/winter and I loved the autumn/winter editions as they had all the new toys in for Christmas, especially all the Star Wars ones I couldn’t hope to afford, but could hope that santa or a grandparent might get me!

      There are some images on Flickr of old Argos would you believe. Look at all the cool Star Wars stuff here!

      Vintage British Argos 1985 Catalogue

      If you go with low expectations, boot sales can be fun!

  6. Me gustarìa compartir una experiencia…hace algunos meses se me ocurriò algo, casi contrario a una “venta de garage”…puse un aviso en Face comentando que me gustarìa comprar càmaras antiguas de pelìcula, quien tuviera una en su desvàn o ropero me lo hiciera saber…y para mi sorpresa me enviaron cientos de mensajes. Al parecer fue buena idea, aunque en verdad comprè sòlo 2 càmaras muy baratas, 2 dòlares por cada una, de 35mm…Casi una ingenierìa inversa, que el vendedor se tome su tiempo y gaste su combustible si quiere deshacerse de algo que no usa o le molesta tener…no sè si sirve para todo el mundo, pero comparto mi experiencia. Muchos saludos a todos!!

    1. Very interesting Pablo. I have thought of doing similar things in the past, but haven’t because I wouldn’t want to be inundated with every rubbish camera anyone has gathering dust in a drawer somewhere! If I stick to eBay, I can be very discerning about which cameras to look for!

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