Confession: I check eBay everyday. I’m not talking a blithe scroll — I have a proper system in place. I “follow” searches, which means when I log into the app each morning, it notifies me of all the items I’m looking for that have just become available. I check the most important ones first (Bella Freud jumper, Acne boots, Caroline Constas shirt), then the ones of middling importance (Helmut Lang blazer, Joseph Jagger trousers, Beni Ourain Moroccan rug), then the ones I really don’t need, say an ostrich feather skirt, a gold sequin maxi dress or a crepe Ossie Clark suit. You get the idea.
I started buying clothes on eBay in 2011 and, insidiously, my hobby turned into an obsession. I now buy 80 percent of my wardrobe, home furnishings and shoes secondhand on eBay. I knew I had a problem when I was recently notified that I had “exceeded” my followed searches (100). Then, a friend who was on the hunt for a green mid-century chair and a red cashmere turtleneck gave eBay a go; it soon transpired that I had been bidding against her without even realizing on two entirely separate, very specific items. Realizing that I am the old guy propping up the bar from 9am until closing time, while everyone else just occasionally visits for fun, was a low moment.
But I just love it as a retail experience, the hunting and gathering of an eBay purchase. Sure, as survival exercises go, waiting for a secondhand Burberry mac to come up in your size is fairly un-punishing. But when you have been sitting, watching and waiting for year upon year, it does feel a little like hooking a prize trout when you get a notification that one is being sold by an elderly woman in the provinces who doesn’t know its value.
Take this tale of serendipity: In 2011, I went out in east London, drank too much and took off my platform ankle boots to enable me to dance into the night. At 2 A.M., I realized someone had walked off with them. And why wouldn’t they? They were the perfect high-heeled boots — black, easy to walk in, made your legs look as long and slender as Bambi’s. They cost $50 from Zara, but were one of those irreplaceable, unlikely wardrobe miracles. No other boots were quite as flattering. I grieved for them afresh every time I got dressed.
Shortly after I lost them, having rung the bar every day for a month to see if they were handed in and even attempting to register the incident with the local police station, I decided to set an alert for “Zara platform boots” on eBay and did a daily trawl of newly listed items. They came up only once in five years and were three sizes too small for me.
In autumn of 2016, half a decade since that fateful night, a pair came up in my size. I bought them instantly for $10 dollars and they arrived good as new — a fable to rival the blind man whose sight returned.
It certainly has made me more consumed with consumerism, but eBay has also enabled me to have a wardrobe and home in my 20s I otherwise would never have been able to afford had I bought stuff brand-new. It’s been a bittersweet codependency (having to hide under my seat in the theater to make a final bid on a West Elm lamp was not my finest hour), but I’ve learned some lessons along the way. The wisdom of which I will impart to you now:
1. When a genuine Self Portrait dress for $50 seems to good to be true, it probably is. Check who the seller is. If this is the first item they’re selling or they reply to you saying: “Hello yes hi sweet miss,” it means the dress doesn’t exist.
2. Always opt for tracked post if you’re selling, otherwise there’s a risk the buyer will say it never arrived and you’ll have to pay a full refund even if you posted it.
3. If there’s something you really want, make a friend your eBay comrade. They can bid against you near the end of the auction, so you double your chance of getting the last highest bid.
4. Similarly, if there’s something you’re selling and you want to up the price, ask a friend to outbid other hopefuls to up the ante.
5. There are some things that will never come up. Loewe luggage, for example. The people who own Loewe luggage do not have an eBay app. When they’re done with their luggage, they’ll throw it into their unused items trashcan along with their dusty diamonds. Millennial mid-salaried Mulberry bag purchasers, on the other hand, certainly do sell stuff.
6. When you find something you love, particularly a vintage piece, check if the seller has an eBay store. They’ll likely have other great items on sale.
7. If something is priced too high and it gets no bids, message the seller privately and negotiate the price down. (Don’t get too back-and-forth-y with the messages; keep it short and sweet. A seller once accused me of “leading him on.”)
8. Don’t obsess if something is too expensive or you lose out. Another one will come up. It may be months, it may be years, but it will certainly return again. That’s the joy of the eBay ecosystem.
Illustration by Emily Zirimis.