I made the six-hour drive from home to the Niagara region on the last Friday in October. Not for the wine, and not for the fruit, but for the tin.
It’s incredible sometimes, when I “step out of myself” and examine what I do, how I spend my spare time, and what makes fun “fun” to me. Other people have fun by going out partying, or going to concerts, to sports events, or to warm islands in the Caribbean. I, however, pack up a bunch of disused license plates in boxes and drive through an overcast and dark autumn evening for six hours so I can trade them to other people. It gets worse—when I’m alone on such a journey, I eat beef jerky and listen to William Shatner’s “singing” along the way. I’m the most eccentric guy I know when I’m by myself.
I turned off the “music” and grabbed my overnight bag when I arrived in Vineland, where Don Goodfellow lives in an old-style house in the middle of Niagara wine country. Don, as regular readers will know, is the host of the fall Tinchasers’ license plate swap meet in Grimsby. He kindly offered me his spare bedroom for the night—a very cozy place to be on a dark and cold night.
We were up well before sunrise. After a shower and some quick breakfast, we were off to the meet in Grimsby, about 20 minutes away along Niagara road 81, which snakes its way past tall trees and huge estates at the foot of the Niagara escarpment. We stopped briefly at Tim Horton’s to grab a coffee to go and some juice for his daughter, Katie—who seemed quite cheerful despite being on her way to a license plate collectors’ swap meet. Before we left, Don had talked on the phone with one of the collectors who was waiting at the hall—apparently, it was about ten after seven in the black morning, and there were already six collectors hanging around in the parking lot. That number grew to about 10 by the time we arrived there a bit after 7:30. Don, the keeper of the keys to the hall, unlocked the door and we all methodically carried our crates, boxes and display boards into the hall.
I normally get a table in the middle, but I elected to go with a couple of tables against the front wall. I had a display this time—the first one I’ve brought to a local swap meet in years—and I needed some wall space. I decided to go browsing through other people’s trade boxes before organizing my own stuff. I’ve been scooped before by preoccupying myself with my own boxes while someone else in the hall unveils a box of goodies that we’ve never seen before. I made a point of going through Joe Sallmen’s traders early, because I knew Joe had visited a prominent collector who is liquidating his collection, and I had a feeling that there would be lots there for me to find.
As it turns out, I was right—I acquired a rare brown Ontario military plate (1955-61 era), and a domestic Canada Forces plate with the rare “CANADA” legend riveted over the old “DND” title. I also jumped at the opportunity to acquire two 1958 test plates—one of them has an odd flat cream-coloured background, and the other was silver with black letters and featured the “Ontario – crown – 1958” legend upside down, so when it’s flipped, it looks as though they’re located on the bottom of the plate. The silver test plate looked just like one that was sold at the Warren Hastings estate auction ten years prior, but this one was even more interesting because it had a partial die strike—it looks as though the zeroes were softly embossed before moving a couple of the dies and doing a hard embossing.
Still at Joe’s table, I picked up low-numbered plates from 1922 and 1923, which included number 949 from 1922. Coincidentally enough, I already own number 949 from 1926, which is a plate issue that looks almost exactly like the 1922 that I acquired from Joe. Not only that, but I happened to have the 1926 number 949 with me—bolted to my display boards that I had brought to Grimsby. Joe also had the super-rare plastic first-issue Canada Forces in Germany plate, and an excellent example. Very few survive, as the construction was poor and it didn't take the military long to move to an aluminum plate. Joe had one of each-- mostly just for show, but they could've been had for the right price.
After picking and finally finishing at Joe’s table, I swapped a weird three-character vanity plate to Matt Embro for a newer pair of Cuban plates—hard to find, but these were the variety that leak away from the island nation, as the top left corner was snipped off each plate to invalidate them. Finding Cuban plates at a swap meet with intact corners would be quite a feat!
I turned my attention back to my table, and with good reason. I had probably tripled the size of my trade stock over the summer by buying a couple of collections in order to get specific plates I wanted. If there’s any place to sell surplus plates, it’s a swap meet. I spread out my dollar bins and my fifty-cent buckets to entice some buyers, and before long, I had people happily stocking up. I had one-dollar plates in my bins that might have easily sold for two bucks, but I could afford to offer good bargains. I sold a stack of some very nice 1960s and 1970s Quebec plates to Tim Laughlin for an attractive price—I can’t get rid of Quebec plates from my trade box because they’re so common, but Tim, somehow, can use them for resale. He took every last Quebec plate from my bargain bins. Tim’s a good guy anyway, but he’s even better when he clears the room of Quebec plates!
Over the morning, hungry collectors whittled my bargain bins down to almost nothing. It was great! They weren’t worth a lot, but I must have reduced my carry-out load by almost 200 plates. It’s so much easier to sell common plates when they’re dirt cheap and right in front of you. I see people wasting time and money using eBay to sell 50-cent plates that just get relisted over and over again. My advice—find a swap meet and watch them move.
The bargain bins are a great means to attract collectors to my trade table. People seem to be more interested in tables that have gathered a crowd, and I think this is part of the reason why I was able to sell some more high-end plates from my trade boxes. What the bargain bins lose in discounted prices, they more than gain in additional sales. At least, that’s how it seemed on this day.
Bob Cornelius is a regular attendee of our swap meets in the Niagara area and he always brings some show-and-tell from his collection. He brought his oversized Haitian plates for me to photograph, but I was even more interested in his triple-1 vanity plates that he first received back on September 23, 1983. Vanity plates of this era are unusual in that they were embossed on an aluminum baseplate, whereas the rest of Ontario’s plates were made of steel at the time (aside from a few aluminum trailer plates here and there). They’re also unusual because background is reflective. Bob was lucky to get the triple-1 combination, as it was in 1983 that Ontario opened the floodgates to allowing most any unclaimed number, and not just ones that fit the ABC-123 format, as had been the restriction in prior years. He ordered early and secured his 111 plates. He has since retired his original 1980s triple-1 plates in favour of remade sets on the current reflective baseplate. I took a picture of Bob with his car, showing the old and new—it’s already one of my favorite pictures.
I put my PA voice to work and made a few announcements for Don before we headed outside for the customary group photo. Lynda Thoman, who has become our de facto group photographer, was given a break this year by Hans Janzen, a new collector to the fold, whose first swap meet was this installment of Grimsby. He has done some travelling across North America. Once on a visit to Brazil, a transport clerk let him have a couple of disused plates from wrecked vehicles in a heap. Why? It was only because it was his “lucky day” when he asked, as the official said in broken English.
I had a great time in Grimsby this year—I sold a bunch of plates I didn’t want, and bought a bunch of plates I’ve been wanting for years. The only downside for me was that there weren’t as many sellers as in previous years. When I asked Don what the attendance was, a few days afterward, he said there were 48 people who entered—which is okay, as it’s enough in admission fees to pay for the hall rental. But during this meet, less than half of the tables in the hall were being used. In a good year, most or all of the tables would be occupied. I don’t think the meet is losing any popularity—I think it’s more a case of bad timing: Norm Ratcliffe had a conference, John Powers was working at an insect show, George Sanders was on a cruise, Dave Wilson was on a different cruise, and Eric Vettoretti was at home with his infant son. These five guys always bring plates to trade, so their presence was certainly missed. There are even more absent collectors, whose whereabouts were unknown. Next year will mark the 10th year of the Tinchasers’ swap meet, dating all the way back to the first meet held in St. Catharines on a Sunday in November, 2003—the only one I have missed. I’d love to see the hall packed to the rafters with plates and people, with more displays and maybe an auction. If there’s something I can do to make it happen, I’ll do it.