Yankee 'swoppers' trade tuxedos for spaniels and pecans for bamboo
| Dublin, N.H.
YOU might say it's where ''The Price is Right'' meets ''Bert and I.'' Or where pragmatism bumps headlong into nostalgia. Or read the following:
* ''Will swop one-ounce pure silver bars for stuffed and mounted members of the weasel family.''
* ''Have straight razors to swop for photos of oxen.''
* ''Will swop depression glass, old Popular Science magazines, or hand-crocheted afghan for large enough supply of red cedar shavings to stuff three large dog beds.''
Such are the wares of Yankee Magazine's ''original swopper's column.'' A longtime feature of the squatty, New Hampshire-based monthly, the column has become one of the most popular and indigenous items ever created by Yankee Publishing - the company that not only produces The Old Farmer's Almanac but whose entire publishing reputation has been forged out a stubborn sense of regionalism's enduring appeal.
Since the column's inception in 1935, it has moved from the back of Yankee where the rest of the classifieds live - ''Wooden Decoys,'' ''Discover Your Roots,'' ''Family Farm Favorites'' - to editorial prominence. Now it lodges right behind ''Quips, Quotes & Queries'' and ''plain talk,'' by Earl Proulx, who answers such questions as ''Could you please tell me how to remove oil stains from an asphalt driveway?''
Such a surge may indicate nothing more than reader preference for what Yankee editors modestly call the oldest and most widely circulated swap column in the country. But other observers will tell you that the column's significance goes beyond its 1 million-plus readers - that the offers to swap Persian cats for dressed hogs, Limoges china for harpsichords, and 50 pounds of pecans for bamboo sport canes are remnants of an earlier age of personal correspondence.
''The column has a real voice, a personal voice,'' says Howard Ziff, a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. ''Sure, some people probably read the column to actually use it, but most read it for the same reason they read personal ads. Or Guy de Maupassant stories. You know, 'Why is that person in Stonington, Maine, finally giving up those heirloom candlesticks?' You can make a little story out of it. It's as close to a one-to-one exchange as you're going to get in an age of mass communication.''
Ask Robert Z., a self-described ''sort of eccentric'' and ''one of the biggest antique-engine dealers on the East Coast.'' Mr. Z. (who requests anonymity) says he used the column to swap a piece of New England property for a particular kind of antique engine. ''You wouldn't believe the letters I got from people all over the country,'' he said over the phone from his home in Massachusetts' Berkshire Mountains. ''Really desperate letters from people who said they had their roots in New England and had to get back here. Only half of them pertained to the engine I wanted. People were offering me sewing-machine collections, yachts, silverware, other land. One guy from California even offered me a balloon business - like I'm going to jump out there and sell balloons, you know?''
Eventually Mr. Z. sold his land, but that has not ended his use of the swap column. ''I got some unusual stuff, antique apple peelers, motors that run on water. I forget what I'm swapping now, but I've got some cool stuff.''
Other recent swaps, though less flamboyant, still make good reading: F. H. Moynahan of Boston swapped lessons in ''swing'' drumming for a Hitchock chair; Elizabeth Sterrit of Clifton, N.J., traded her turquoise dinner gown for artwork.
Up in Yankee's barn-red offices in picture-post-card Dublin, N.H. (''New England's highest village,'' according to the highway marker), the editors have their own theories. ''The column represents what the whole magazine is about,'' says column editor Polly Bannister, curled up in her office about the size of a walk-in closet. ''That Yankee sense of practicality that says you never throw anything out.''
Jerry Sass, a Maine homesteader, agrees with that. ''Basically people have something in their garage that is too good to throw out, but nobody'd give you anything for it,'' he says over the phone from his farm. ''I've used the column six times a year during the past 15 years. I swapped an aluminum boat and outboard motor for an iron-wheel farm tractor once. I had to drive all the way to Pennsylvania to exchange that one.''
''People take this very seriously,'' Miss Bannister adds. ''The response (to the column) has always been tremendous.'' In fact, swap offers flutter in from as far away as England and Australia at roughly the rate of 100 a month. Since only 50 can be published, careful weeding is needed. ''I think they pick them out of a hat,'' suggests Mr. Sass. ''I've talked to the editor,'' Mr. Z insists. ''It's based on uniqueness. You have to be accepted.''
Miss Bannister holds up a typed sheet of criteria, indicating that choices are based on:
* Detail and obscurity of the item: ''1930s edition of Who's Who in Railroading,'' for instance.
* Humor: ''Will swop rowing machine exerciser for scale that goes up to 330 pounds.''
* Practicality: ''Teacher will tutor your children in swop for summer lodgings in New England.''
* Regional touch: ''Will swop 10 pounds of shelled Virginia peanuts for one gallon of Grade-A pure Vermont maple syrup.''
* Season: ''Will swop snowmobile for canoe.''
Or emotional content. A recent favorite reads: ''Will swop handmade size 5 champagne-colored wedding dress with appliqued lace and chiffon skirt and size 51/2 Keepsake 0.17 diamond ring for a wood- and coal-burning stove.'' ''We figured the wedding was called off and she had to keep warm somehow,'' Miss Bannister says.
Conversely, what Yankee wants to avoid are swaps that are too personal, mention cash, or require expert knowledge. After all, the column started back in December of '35 when the staff ran short of copy one day and associate editor Beth Tolman decided to unload an old and ''not too comfortable'' couch by offering to swap it for that most common of items, ''one dozen fresh eggs.''
Since then there have been no trends as such. ''They're all wacky,'' Miss Bannister says, smiling. ''The column is really funny.'' As evidence, she offers a list of swaps reprinted by Reader's Digest: ''I have a Tuxedo in very good condition. . . . Will swap for a cocker spaniel.'' ''I have a fine 15-year-old parrot which can drink out of a bottle, feed himself with a spoon, sing, whistle , talk, and bark like a dog. Will swap for a good fishing outfit.''
''Who wants two perfectly good gold teeth for a large shell and seaweed majolica pitcher?'' While most swaps remain anonymous - no addresses are listed, and Yankee simply forwards the responses - some success stories have come to light. Such as the woman who struck up a correspondence with a man in Arkansas over a swap and later married him.
''About 1 or 2 percent of the people actually write us and say thanks,'' says Miss Bannister, pulling open a file drawer full of handwritten letters proposing swaps. The variety of stationery looks as interesting as the swaps: ''From the desk of . . . ,'' ''Greetings from . . . ,'' or plain notebook paper. Most are covered with polite, spidery handwriting. One post card has a picture of a two-headed snake on the front and a smile sticker on the back. It looks particularly unusual. ''Some people try to send in swaps every month,'' she says , ''but I usually only let them get in every other month.''
One of those regulars is Frank Risse, an engineer and collector of military antiques in Putnam Valley, N.Y., who has ''been doing this for so many years'' he can't remember all the stuff he has swapped, but says he usually gets in a proposed swap every month, mailing it the same envelope he uses to respond to swaps as ''a matter of frugality.''
But Mr. Z., who says he advertises ''all over the country'' for his business, says staunchly, ''I do go right for the swap column. It's a way of life.'' And that from a man who maintains that ''while I'm dealing with a class of people not exactly on Wall Street, I do own my own farm outright, just by wheeling and dealing.''