ASCII by Jason Scott

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The Thick of It: Computer Shopper —

The article that informed me was very upbeat about it, but the fact remains: Computer Shopper is going out of print.  In the contemporary era, “going out of print” doesn’t always mean “died”; with the website now as valid a location for publication as anything else, the lack of a print component merely means dead trees. But oh, what a print component it was.

As someone who spends a lot of time going through old publications, you can usually tell the difference between the happy and not so happy eras of a magazine by how thick it was. This wasn’t the only telling sign, of course, and I’m sure many thick issues were terrible places to work at and many thin ones were joys. But with thickness came money, and with the money came the less insane requests, the further looking ahead. PC Magazine, for example, was nearly a half-inch thick at the best of times, and a thin sliver when times were not as rosy. Wired magazine is going through the same right now: if you pick up an issue from the last few months, you will wonder if you’re not looking at the example copy given out for free at conventions. But few magazines were as consistently massive and intense as Computer Shopper.

I have a bunch of copies, but I figured you’d get the point if I just showed you a specific issue from September, 1987.

Computer Shopper, December 1987

Heft is the word that comes to mind. As usual, the size isn’t obvious and I’ll probably start including size-comparison objects in these photos in the future, but this was a pretty big thing to either get in the mail or pick up from the bottom of a newsstand (on the floor). The cover story is about the Amiga 500, that darling second-generation Amiga that did everything right. Notice, if you will, that there are actual advertisements on the front cover; I’m sure these were sold as top premium spots and cost those poor vendors some hard and sick cash.

Computer Shopper, December 1987Computer Shopper, December 1987Computer Shopper, December 1987

At the center of any issues of Computer Shopper were, of course, the advertisements, great swaths of black-and-white and occasionally color, all promising you the moon. There’s the “old numbers game” which is always fun to play: realizing that the difference between a 10 and 12 megahertz CPU (that’s .010 and .012 gigahertz, kids) is $100. Seeing a 12MHz 60mb PC for $1,999. And in the center, there, some excellent “Hacker Christmas Gifts”, such as mugs, a weird seat (which I owned) and a pound of chocolate. Yes, what these sedentary hackers need are pounds of chocolate.

Computer Shopper, December 1987In the back of the magazine were tons and tons of smaller advertisements. Usually as little as a couple lines, and some going a full column, these were for the guys without the ability to use images (a notable cost) or who had only one or two items for sale. If all you could offer were quality disk labels, or the only thing you were selling were grey-market Wang stations, then maybe you wanted to lurk past here. Notable in this photo are the amounts of three-star headers. This was an extra cost that you could pay to make your advertisement “more noticable”, and as you can see quite a few people seemed to be willing to ink the checkmark and do that little extra to be noticed, even if they didn’t want to pay the big bucks for “real” ads.

You realize, I hope, what a daunting, terrible task it must have been to put together this monster every month. There must have been between 200-300 “major” sponsors and literally thousands of other people contributing single-line ads, authored columns, you name it. When the Revolution happened over the course of years, this all became much easier, and why others may decry the change, the addition of the text entry box as part of the web experience made life so much easier…

Computer Shopper, December 1987

This is a 1987 ad by Gateway Computers (then called Gateway 2000). I am struck, personally, by the “no bullshit” guarantee, a sign of a wonderfully young company not afraid to get your attention. They in fact use this logo twice, along with the “First Time – Every Time” chant that indicates how they’re going to get your business and keep it. I noticed this ad because Gateway has gone on to other things, and many of the firms in this magazine issue have disappeared in the resulting 20 years, but it’s interesting how they were once just another scrappy bunch of people trying to get your attention.

Computer Shopper, December 1987

Now, here is one of the core reasons I’ve been collecting these issues: the bulletin board listings. Computer shopper was one of the places to get BBS numbers in the 1980s outside of Fidonet Nodelists and a handful (less than a dozen) of “National” lists being maintaned. In the Computer Shopper BBS section, which went on for pages and pages, you could find all manner of places, all added because someone sent in a letter. Trust me, this bastard is the dictionary definition of “daunting”. Let me zoom in a little here for you:

Computer Shopper, December 1987

“(303)597-2743 Colorado Sptrings. Baud: 3/12, online: 24 hrs (disk space=21Mb) SysOp: Kathy Bylkas. FOG #45. Sponsored by FOG A.M.O. 135–Colorado Springs Osborne Group. Using Osborne & Metal. PRASCA member.”

That is a treasure trove of information about that BBS, and a touchstone for all sorts of other BBS-related items that I might otherwise never hear of. “FOG”, “Colorado Springs Osborne Group”, “PRASCA” all lead me to other places, and while I might not get the story, I begin to.

But the problem is, of course, that to transcribe or OCR this information in is just way too much for me right now. We’re talking months of work, which would have to be done by interns. I don’t have interns and it would be ludicrous for me to concentrate too much energy on this right now. Online lists are easy. These, not so much. But when I do add them, the BBS List will swell to crazy ranks.

So goodbye, Computer Shopper, banished to the rank of websites and memories. I appreciated you guys immensely throughout my computing life, and somewhere up there, you’re still selling grey-market materials and promising us just one more megahertz for fifty bucks.

Categorised as: computer history

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  1. Paul says:

    I so fondly remember the old telephone book sized Computer Shopper. As a high school kid it was my bible for finding local BBSs. It was also one of the last major national magazines to continue covering old 8-bit systems like Commodores, Ataris and my favorite old TI-99/4a in the late 80s.

    In the 90s I really enjoyed the Hard Edge column which provided snarky but relevant opinions on tech news without going ga ga over the next big thing.

    The magazine was my go-to reference in that decade to make sure I wasn’t getting ripped off on buying computers and parts in those days before ecommerce.

    It’s been a shadow of its former self for about a decade now, and especially since the Hard Edge column ended in 2004. Nevertheless, I note the passing of an era.

  2. relaxing says:

    I grew up on Computer Shopper. Any issue I could get my hands on, I treated like a bible. (My parents got me an issue for Christmas one year.)

    Still, there’s not much need for pages upon pages of ads in the age of…. File this under “how we survived prior to the World Wide Web.”

  3. Chris says:

    I loved Computer Shopper, and would pick one up just prior to any PC upgrade cycle, which was about once a year for me back in the 90s. I was also sad to see how thin it had become in the past few years.

  4. armageddon says:

    Wow, thanks for this. I have so many fond memories of poring over PC Mag, BYTE, and Computer Shopper back in the early to mid-nineties, when 386s with 32 MB of RAM were state-of-the-art as far as consumer PCs went. I couldn’t afford most of what was in there, but it gave me ideas and dreams about what I could build… one day. For at least ten years it literally was the bible for computer enthusiasts

    If you ever got around to scanning in one of these behemoths, I’m sure you could find folks to transcribe one or two entries each (using Mechanical Turk, perhaps) for posterity. Just an idea.

  5. Palad says:

    Along the lines of what armageddon suggested, you could always offer incentives for people to transcribe whole pages or issues. For example, x number of pages correctly (competently?) transcribed could earn a y% discount on the BBS Documentary.

    Shoot, mail me one of them and I’ll have my 8-year-old transcribe the whole thing as a technology homework assignment.

  6. I took one of the phone numbers from the detail page, (xxx)688-3204, and did a google search. Three different BBS names show up, showing just how much history is hidden behind this one ad out of thousands.

  7. Sarge says:

    The day my BBS’s phone number appeared in Computer Shopper was the day I knew I had to dedicate a full-time 24-hour phone to the BBS. While it was great that the BBS got many phone calls during the overnight, the daytime carrier searches by 300-baud modems was overwhelming to my parents’ only voice line. This was in 1984. Wow.

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