Tales of Astronomy 3 - Telescope for Sale

By Ed Ting 1/13/03
(Author's Note: Read Part 1 and Part 2 first if you haven't already)

It all started one cold January morning during a prolonged stretch of dreary, cloudy weather. Our local observing group had been caught in a classic New England Catch-22: when the temperatures were warm enough to go observing, it was always cloudy out. On the other hand, when the skies cleared, the temperatures dropped to the single-digits or below. I had just been elected President of our local astronomy club, and there were duties to perform. A stack of papers by my desk was slowly getting taller; I would have to get down to business soon. Naturally, the makes the avid observer a little stir crazy. I had spent the morning wandering in and out of the garage, solemnly inspecting my telescopes the way a drill sergeant might look over a row of cadets before bedtime. A place for everything, and everything in its place. My scopes were quietly lined up like soldiers against the back wall, waiting to do battle against the night sky. The Takahashi FS102 4" refractor was on the far left, followed by the 6" Dobsonian, the 8" SCT, and the 10" Starmaster. On the far right lay the big gun: a 20" Obsession on a strong platform with lockable castors underneath. All lay dormant, with cloths carefully draped over them to protect the delicate optics. On shelves in between the scopes lay dedicated eyepiece cases for each scope. The Tak's case contained nothing but imported high-quality orthoscopics, each of which cost more than most beginner's telescopes. Some of them took months to obtain from overseas suppliers. The 6" and 8" scopes had generic Kellners and Plossls for star party use. The Starmaster's case consisted of expensive Plossls and Naglers, while the case for the big Obsession (a watertight aluminum flight case) sported nothing but long focal length Panoptics and Type 4 Naglers, some of them in duplicate. Later, I was sitting at my desk slogging through the stack of club business. Pete Kip, former President and current Treasurer, had given me instructions on what he thought should be done. He was also emailing me asking me why I hadn't acted upon his suggestions. I was getting the nagging feeling deep down that Pete still felt he was the President of the club. I reading a stack of old astronomy magazines when the phone rang. It was an observing buddy we often refer to as "Old Dan." "Ed, it's Dan. I think I'm going to sell the Traveler." I sat up. Understand, amongst our group, a statement like "I am going to sell the Traveler" was likely to have the same effect on us as the statement "Pamela Anderson is now single" could have among unattached men in Hollywood. I mean, the implications were huge. "Why didn't you tell me this two months ago?" I had just bought the Takahashi because I was sick of being on AP's waiting list. "Well," said Old Dan, "I was still working on my double star list and wanted to see how many I could split with a small refractor. That observing project is done. Now it's time to move on." "How much do you want for it?" I took out my checkbook and winced at the painfully low balance. "Well, you're a friend, and if you bought it I know the scope would still be local and in good hands." Old Dan often used these statements to soften me up when he really wanted to move in for the kill. He knew I wanted the Traveler. Perhaps it was my panting on the phone that gave it away. Old Dan quoted me a price. I leapt off my chair. "For the optical tube alone? I could buy TWO Takahashis for that!!" "Yes," said Old Dan, calmly. "But I've been checking prices and I could still make more on Astromart or ebay. This price is really very reasonable when you get down to it. In a way, I'm actually losing money." Dan is an accountant by trade, and he has a way of smoothly saying things like this that make you believe him. I looked again at my checkbook statement. There was no way this could be done with the cash I had on hand. If I tried to write a check for the stated amount, my checkbook would probably implode from the financial stress. "Is there anything else I can give you to make up the difference?" "Well, now that you mention it," Old Dan was very skilled at making me think these ideas are my own. I was a fish being played by a master fisherman, and we both knew it. "I've always liked that Starmaster of yours. You know - the one with the Zambuto mirror. Good stuff." We worked out the terms. The amount is not important. Suffice it to say, I still needed to come up with cash to get that Traveler. As soon as I hung up with Old Dan, I called my friend Mike. His wife answered the phone. She sounded a little stressed out. "He's not here right now. He went to Ron's Telescope Treasures for the morning. I'm alone with the babies. I gotta go. Can you call back?" I called Ron's. "Ron's Telescope Treasures! How can I help?" "Hi Ron, is Mike there?" I hear shuffling noises. Then in a muffled tone in the background I hear, "Mike, Ed's on the phone for you! And don't tie up this line too long!" More shuffling noises. Then Mike came on the phone. "Hey Ed, they just took in a used C14 in trade here!" My heart sank. I was hoping to sell him one of my scopes. If he was looking hard at that C14, I might lose the Traveler. "Mike, Dan is thinking of selling the Traveler." Silence at the other end of the line. "Don't even think about it. I have first dibs. But I need some cash. I know you've been looking at my Takahashi for some time now. I don't need two 4" refractors. What if I gave you a great deal on it?" "Yeah...that's a nice scope" said Mike. But I could hear hesitation on his end. "But... the truth is, I've almost reached a deal with Ron on this C14. I'm trading in three scopes and making payments on the rest. If I take out another loan on a scope, my wife will kill me. Truth be told, I'd rather have your Takahashi, but the C14 will do nicely for now. I just don't have the money." Now it was my turn to be silent. I was so close to getting that Traveler, and now it was slipping away. I thought about selling the Tak to Ron, but I'd be giving it away. I could use Astromart or ebay, but neither of these outlets gives you cash fast enough. I needed money, now. Then, an idea hit. "Mike, put Ron on the phone." I asked Ron how much he wanted for the C14. The price was low. Not low as in "That's a nice deal" but low as in "This price is just way too low for any sane human being to pass up. The Laws of Civilization demand that you buy it." Ron said he knew the price was good, but he's nervous about holding on to big telescopes. They take up too much space and too many dollars, and wives don't like them. He'd rather move it at a low margin than keep it for a long time, hoping someone will come along and pay top dollar. Now I was in a double quandary. I wanted the Traveler, but the C14 was such a good deal, I wanted it, too. "Mike, I've got an idea. You said you'd prefer the Takahashi over the C14, right?" "Right." "Okay, here's my plan. I'll trade in the Takahashi and some other scopes for the C14. If I work this right, Ron will actually be paying me money back. Plus, he'll get some smaller inventory that's easier to move. You can buy the Tak back from Ron at a low profit margin. Then I take the cash and the Starmaster and trade it to Old Dan for the Traveler and we're all happy." "...but..." "You'll still get use of the C14 - heck, we only live four miles apart. I'll give you the spare garage door opener so you can come over any time you want." Of course, I didn't tell Mike everything. What I didn't tell him was that I planned to sell the C14 in a few months. The price was so low, I could easily make money back on it to buy some of my stuff back from Ron's. In this way, I was using Ron's as a low-rent astronomical pawn shop. The way I saw it, I wasn't selling him my stuff, I was just letting him hold on to it for a short time. Yes, this was working out beautifully. Mike was still on the phone. I heard the other line ring into the shop. Ron answered. "Mike, how does this sound?" "Well.." said Mike. "To tell you the truth, I was thinking about using the C14 for a while and then selling it. The price is really good, you know." Gulp. "Uh, yes, I know." Mike was thinking the same thing I was thinking. Then, Ron came on the line. "Hey guys -- it's Dan on the other line. I'm sorry, Mike but I told him about the C14 last night. He wanted the first right of refusal on it. But since I hadn't heard from him as of this morning, I figured it was for sale to you. But now Dan says he wants it. I'm patching you all in so you can talk to each other." Now it was all coming together. Old Dan was selling the Traveler to me to get the C14. Then he was probably planning to sell it to someone else and make some money. With all three of us staking a claim on the C14, we seemed to be at an impasse. But I was in too deep at this point to give up. I came up with a solution. We form a temporary "corporation." The corporation buys the C14, and we rotate the scope from house to house over time. After a while, by majority vote, we sell the scope and split the profits. In a way, this was even better than my original plan, since I only had to come up with 1/3 of the money to get my share of the C14 (which I could easily do by trading in the 6" Dob and the 8" SCT.) This was going to work out after all. I was getting Old Dan's Traveler, Mike was getting my Takahashi, Dan was getting my Starmaster, Ron was getting my 6" and 8" scopes, and we were all buying the C14 together. What could be simpler? "In fact," said Old Dan, "you can even put the ad on Astromart right now: FS In Three Months, like-new C14." "Sounds good to me," said Mike. "We're selling a scope we don't even own yet?" I asked. "We'll all make money on it," said Mike. "Agreed," said Dan. "OK, I'll do it right now," I said. I have two phone lines in the house, so I logged on and placed the ad. "Done," I announced a few minutes later. Mike spoke next. "Ron says if you and Dan come down here this morning with your scopes we can do the deal right now." "All right," I said. "I'll pack up the car as soon as we hang up." "I'll be there, too," said Dan. I was getting ready to hang up when the "You've Got Mail" icon flashed on my screen. "Hold on, guys." It was a response to the ad, which had been up for less than 5 minutes. I read the ad. "OK guys, here the deal. Someone named Frank in California says he'll buy the C14 and pay the shipping, too. But he wants the scope this week." "But if we sell it now - " said Dan. Mike finished the sentence for him. "- we won't get to look through it at all." "Yes," I said, "But do you know what the shipping cost is on a big scope like this?" A few moments of silence while we all pondered this. "I say we sell it," said Dan, breaking the ice. "Me too," said Mike. "I guess the majority has spoken," I said. "We can just have Ron ship out the C14 from his shop today. No need having us even taking the scope home at this point." "I'm responding to Frank as I speak," I said, typing as I talked. As I gave out my mailing information to Frank, another e-mail popped up. "It's from a guy in Texas who wants the C14 and wants to know if we'll take a 16 inch Starfinder, two Chinese achromats, and first right of refusal on a 7 inch Mak-Newt for it. I guess I better delete the ad, eh?" I did. It was nice to make a modest profit for three people for only a few minutes' work. But I still had to get down to Ron's and give him the Tak, the 6" and the 8" to settle up so that I could get Dan's Traveler. And Dan had to get down to Ron's with his share of the soon-to-be-departed C14, and the Traveler to give to me. I found myself loading up the car with all the scopes I owned except the 20" Obsession, which watched over me like a giant, quiet sentinel as I carted away all of its brethren for good. The scopes barely fit inside the car, but with some creative packing, I managed. When I arrived at the shop a few minutes later, Dan was already there. When I handed the Takahashi over to Ron, he passed it on to Mike, who immediately gave it to Dan. Dan smiled. "I just bought your Takahashi from Mike," he said. "WHAT?!?" "We talked while you were on your way over here," said Mike. He doesn't have a 4 inch refractor anymore, since you're buying the Traveler. So he offered me a good price on it and I'm taking the money. You never know what's going to show up at the shop that I might want." I shook my head to clear my mind. This was getting hard to follow. I did my deal with Ron and handed over the money to Old Dan. It felt funny - essentially, I was giving a huge pile of cash AND the Takahashi to Dan for the Traveler. I looked over at Dan, cradling his new Takahashi. It had gone from me to Ron to Mike to Dan - four owners - in less than thirty seconds. In any case, I got what I wanted - the Traveler. But I saw Mike looking my way. "You know," he said, "I just made a pile of cash from the sale of the C14 and the Tak. Plus, I came down here with more than enough money to buy the C14 to begin with. So what if I offered you THIS -" He fanned out a spread of $100 bills in his hand, looking like the world's richest magician. It was entrancing, seeing all that cash. I left like the John Travolta character in Pulp Fiction when he opened up the suitcase. Golden filtered light seemed to shine into my eyes from all that money. " - for that Traveler?" As if in a daze, I saw myself handing the Traveler to Mike, in exchange for the money. Now Dan and Mike were both smiling. Mike had the Traveler, and Dan had the Takahashi and my Starmaster. I, on the other hand, had nothing. "I don't have any telescopes left," I said. "You have the Obsession," said Dan. "Yeah, but - but -" "See you, Ron!" said Mike, waving. "See you guys later!" said Dan as he left the store. Sometime later that afternoon, I stood in my garage, wondering what had happened. It was a lot quieter in there now, with the 20" Obsession the only survivor from the fray that morning. Four shelves with lonely-looking eyepiece cases hung from the walls. As I stood there, sulking, I plunged my hands into my pockets, and pulled out a huge wad of something. It was a pile of cash, thousands of dollars worth, in small bills. I wandered inside the house and looked at the pile of club business to be done. I had to upload next year's club calendar, for one thing. I sat at my computer, and logged on. There were a bunch of messages from Pete Kip. Instead of reading them, I hit the familiar tab on my "favorites" folder. Through the flickering lights on the screen, I waited until the latest classified ads came up, and started reading. The first ad read, "Telescope For Sale..." -Ed Ting 6/13/00, 4/01, 9/02, 1/03 Back to Home Page