Monday, September 29, 2014

Those crazy Amazon prices

I know it's happened to you. You're browsing Amazon when you run across a book you've been looking for, but then wham, you see the price. "Holy crap! Is that really $1,200?" you exclaim, wondering if you'll need to get a second job as a Walmart greeter to pay for just one book.

Over the weekend I was looking through my Amazon wish list when I came across Yemif Gordon's book on the MiG-21. Two sellers had it listed for more than $3,000!
That can't be correct, I thought to myself, but rather than go onto the forums to vent as many people are prone to do, I emailed the seller to ask if the price was accurate. My message was simple:

I see this item for sale on Amazon, but the price seems extraordinarily high for a book, over $3,000. Is that accurate or a typo?

We're not the only people who've noticed these outrageous prices. A few years ago one blogger wrote about a book whose price peaked at over $23 million, which generated a great deal of buzz on the interwebz.

In case you don't know, these exorbitant prices are the result of what's known as algorithmic pricing or robo pricing. Amazone sellers use computer software -- provided by companies such as Revionics and Advanced Pricing Logic -- to  troll the internet looking for the same item and adjusting the price of their items according to the instructions fed into the software. As this article points out, algorithmic pricing is generally intended to drive prices down (have you noticed the many books on Amazon selling for one penny?), but it can drive prices up as well, which explains why we often see books and other products selling at ridiculous prices.

The seller of the MiG-21 book responded to me within a few hours with the following:

We purchased and listed about 20,000 book from a library we liquidated. After a few sold we realized there was a quality control issue so we had to raise the prices of all of those books to make sure no one purchased them while we manually go through each item and check to make sure the item is sellable.

Also some of our books were discarded but still listed in error. Given the number of emails we have been receiving we should have removed the books then relisted one at a time. I checked this book and it appears to be one of the books that was discarded. I've sent in a request to have it removed.

I don't know enough about how listings are managed on Amazon, but I'm not convinced that raising prices is the best way to make sure no one purchases select items. And I think it's unusual that two sellers on two continents have listed the same book within a few dollars of each other, so I suspect algorithmic pricing is at play regardless of what I was told.

Nonetheless, the next time you find something you want on Amazon, don't hesitate to contact the seller. The response may well be interesting, if not positive.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

So you’re visiting New York City

Unlike, say, Florida, it’s always tourist season in New York City. I’ve had the pleasure of working in Midtown Manhattan for almost 15 years now, and regardless of the time of year there are thousands of tourists enjoying the city every day. It’s not surprising that many of you plan to visit, and as we modelers usually do, ask about hobby shops in the city. I thought I’d offer my suggestions for your next visit, with some perspective on the shops and destinations beyond.


If you were to ask me, “Steve, are there any good hobby shops in the city?” I’d tell you there are, but, cripes! It’s New York City. Forget the hobby shops for a few days and enjoy everything the city has to offer! But if you pushed me, I’d tell you about the only two shops remaining.

The Red Caboose (23 W. 45th St.) resides in a basement space. It’s likely to be the most cramped, scruffy hobby shop you’ll ever visit, but I love it. It has a small selection of kits, including some new releases, but you’ll pay New York City prices, which is MSRP plus extra. Rent doesn't come cheap in these parts! What’s most intriguing about The Caboose is what you can’t see. There seem to be places the general public isn’t permitted to go, and I can’t help but wonder what’s behind that closed door or deep into that shadowed corner over there. Imagine the treasures to be discovered! Or not.

It's easy to walk right past the shop.

Some of the aircraft selection.

Be sure to say hello to Lionel.

Jan’s Hobby Shop (1435 Lexington Ave) is a more traditional store. Like the Caboose, the shop is very small, but the owners have packed it floor-to-ceiling with product. They has a surprisingly large variety of plastic models, new releases and old, including aircraft, armor, ships, and cars. Very few magazines or books. They have a nice collection of built models, displayed in a two cases in the middle of the store that are worth a closer look. Again you’ll find NYC prices, but stop by the shop if you’re in the neighborhood. Bring your wife, too; the shop next door specializes in cook books.

Jan's on the Upper East Side.

I have to recommend The Strand, a huge bookstore two blocks from Union Square. With both new, clearance, and pre-owned books, the selection is always changing, and you’re sure to find something interesting to read on the flight back home. The history and military sections are huge, so a visit should be on your to-do list.

Just two blocks south of busy Union Square.

The military selection at the Strand

With the hobby shops out of the way, let’s talk about the more interesting things you should do in New York.


Do you like to eat? Of course you do. Here are a few suggestions.

Resto (111 E 29th St) is a man’s restaurant and my favorite in New York City. Lots of meat, and you can even dine on a complete pig’s head if you give them a week’s notice. They have a good selection of German beer and a handful of rotating, creative cocktails, many of them bourbon-based.

My favorite restaurant in the city.

Speaking of beer, The Ginger Man (11 E 36th St) is a must-stop for anyone who considers himself a beer aficionado. As I write this, they have 70 beers on tap and over 160 bottled. The selection is unrivaled, and the only downside to a visit is deciding which beers to enjoy. The food is good (typical pub fare), but then after enjoying a Belgian quad or two on my last visit I have no recollection of anything that had happened the prior 24 hours.

With two locations (382 8th Ave. and 747 9th Ave.) in the city, Uncle Nick’s is another favorite of mine. Greek food at its best. Everything on the menu is good, but I’d strongly recommend something off the grill, particularly the fish. For your appetizer, go with the oktapodaki (octopus) or glykadakia (sweetbreads).

Mapo Tofu (338 Lexington Ave) offers exceptional Szechuan style Chinese. That means spicy. You won’t encounter anything exotic as you would in Chinatown, so if you like the Chinese joint back home you're sure to find something enticing on Mapo’s meu. Everything is good, but I’m particularly fond of the stir-fried pork belly with chili leeks.

If you’re visiting the city with that special woman in your life and want to thank her for tolerating your visits to New York's hobby shops and book stores, the food at Blue Hill (75 Washington Pl.) is exceptional. President and Mrs. Obama dined here a few years ago, in fact. Located in a former speakeasy in Greenwich Village, Blue Hill specializes in seasonal, locally sourced ingredients from the Hudson Valley.


There are so many places to see in New York City it’s hard to recommend even three or four. Obviously the museums are excellent, and they're sure to inspire the artistic and creative parts of your brain, which should make you a better modeler. If you have kids, the American Museum of Natural History (Central Park West at 79th Street) is a great place to spend an afternoon. If you don't have kids and you’re a little kinky, the Museum of Sex (233 Fifth Avenue) is, um...titillating.

The one place I know you’ll visit is the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum (Pier 86 at 46th Street). The ship has been restored reasonably well, and there’s a – shall we say: interesting – selection of aircraft on the deck. I understand the the TBM, the F9F-8, and the A-4, but I don’t get the presence of the A-12 or Kfir in the collection. I suppose they were the equivalent of an impulse purchase for the curators!

And Times Square. At night. It’s an amazing spot.

Enjoy your visit!

Monday, September 1, 2014

My first hobby shop

Do you remember your first hobby shop? I do.

The year was 1982, a small Florida town about an hour north of Tampa. I was 14 years old. I had never filled seams, never used an airbrush, and had no idea that any other model-related companies existed beyond the Monogram and Revell kits I saw in TG&Y and K-Mart.

But then I found the now-defunct magazine Scale Modeler in a nearby bookstore, which opened my eyes to the lengths to which modelers were going to build museum-quality models. I also learned about IPMS and joined a club in nearby Ocala, a metropolis compared to tiny Inverness. Between the magazine and the club, I began to enjoy the hobby deeper than I had before, and Carl’s Hobbies was a haven for me in the middle of the vast tracts of forest and orange groves of Central Florida.

Location of the former Carl's Hobbies
The shop was small, I’d guess about 750 square feet. It had a typical layout: display case and cash register up front, long shelves lining each wall to the left and right, and a shelving unit down the center of the shop. As I recall Carl didn’t have much stock model-wise. He had maybe 50 kits. (I had 15 in my stash at the time, which I thought was a lot.) But the cool thing was he had kits I’d never seen before. Hasegawa, Tamiya, Airfix. Who knew there was so much variety? Prices were retail, which hurt this kid making only $3.60/hour bagging groceries at nearby Kash ‘n’ Karry. I remember eying the super-cool looking Tamiya 1/35 Merkava for over a year before finally breaking down and paying $24 for it. (Was it even that much?)

Guess what. That Merkava is still in my stash!
I got to know Carl fairly well. He periodically donated models to the model club of my AFJROTC squadron, and he kindly chatted with me and my friends even when we didn’t buy much. His business saw some success, because when a new strip mall was built on the other side of town he moved his shop into a larger space. I don’t think he survived there longer than three or four years though. I remember coming home on leave after I’d joined the Air Force to find his shop was gone.

Inverness is a small town today, but it was much, much smaller back then. That it even had a hobby shop was remarkable. At the very least the shop provided an environment that inspired a least a few of us young scale modelers. We didn’t know how good we had it. Such as it was.