It all started with a plea for help.
"Does anyone have a shoulder for a mom who's losing her son today?"
With that message, posted May 31, 1998, Cathi Rogers, aka "Apricot," became a part of the extended family that calls eBay home.
Rogers had lurked in the "eBay Caf�" for a while before she posted her first message, a reference to her oldest son's high-school graduation. Since then she has authored her own Web page on the site and has become a Caf� regular, dispensing her southern charm from her home in Chatsworth, Ga.
Rogers is one of a battalion of buyers and sellers who visits eBay regularly as much for the camaraderie as for the commerce. It's the emphasis on building an online community that separates eBay from other online auction sites and keeps regulars like Apricot coming back.
"By the time I had finished that conversation, I left laughing and having a good time and I continued to go back," Rogers said. "As time passed, things began to develop in the Caf�, and each person became more than just someone on the Internet. It affords me the opportunity to meet people I would never otherwise meet. It makes you aware that those states you hear about on the evening news, those people living there, are real and they're sharing the same experiences I am, and it just brings everything home."
In December, Rogers had surgery and was AWOL from the site for several days. She received 52 get-well cards from her extended eBay family.
The stories of total strangers reaching out to each other through their eBay connections are legendary:
- One woman was losing her computer due to a divorce. Someone in the Caf� sent her a computer so she could stay in touch.
- A Virginia man fell on hard times and couldn't afford to replace a broken furnace or make needed repairs to his mobile home. Two Caf� members traveled hundreds of miles to repair a rotting floor. Other Caf� members collected enough money to buy the man a new furnace.
- A Hawaii woman traveled to San Diego to obtain a prosthesis for an amputated leg. A Caf� regular welcomed the woman into her home for the three weeks she spent undergoing therapy.
To be sure, Rogers also buys and sells on eBay. She reluctantly admits to being a Gary Cooper fan in addition to collecting antique china.
"eBay offers a variety. There's something out there for everyone," she said. "It brings the kid out in you. I typed in 'Gary Cooper,' [in the eBay search engine], and mercy! There was all kinds of Gary Cooper stuff.
"It's opened up a whole new avenue for us to go bankrupt, I guess," she added.
Darrell Hutsell visits eBay from his home base in Philomath, Ore. (his nickname on eBay is Orygun "because that's how you pronounce it"). Hutsell bought all his Christmas gifts last year on eBay and was thrilled with the result.
"I spent on all the gifts about $320, and I spent $800 last year," he said.
He even bought the computer he now uses to visit eBay online.
"The guy makes them personally, about two a month, and then he puts them up for auction," Hutsell said. "I was bidding on it and when it got up to $870 dollars, I wrote and said 'If I don't get this, is there any way you can make me one?' He said he would build one for $850. Three days later, it sold for $980 in the auction."
Hutsell exemplifies the typical pattern of eBay users first, they lurk for a while, then they begin buying items and eventually, start selling. What Hutsell is bringing to market on eBay is Myrtle wood, taken from trees that only grow on the Oregon coast and in Israel.
"I sold some raw pieces to a person down in California, and he made some pen sets," he said. "I'm getting it known throughout the eBay community. If I just put out there 'Myrtle wood,' they'll think it's just a plain piece of wood. But back in ancient Egyptian times, that was the only wood allowed on the table."
Bosch Smith, aka "1965baby," bills himself as a "G.I. Joe archeologist." He has purchased 10 of the action figures since logging on to eBay about a year ago from his home in Detroit.
"You'd probably have to go to 50 conventions to find the diversity you see on eBay," he said.
His name appears on the site followed by a gold star, which refers to his "feedback profile." The gold star means that anywhere between 10 and 99 people who have done business with Smith have posted a positive report.
The auction site has become a habit for Smith, a trait he shares with many people who have had the eBay experience.
"I go there everyday," Smith said. "I hate it when it crashes and you can't get on."
For her part, Rogers is excited about a get-together planned for southern eBayers later this year.
"You get a photo on the 'Me' page, and you get a taste of their personality," she said. "You think you know that person. But I'm prepared to be surprised to hear a voice."