By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
RIAN ORFIN HATED TEACHING. He was miserable in the classroom.
What the Warren native did love was collecting old toys, especially Star Wars figures, and selling them on eBay, the Internet auction site.
So one day in April 2000, Orfin did something drastic: He walked out on his job as a Head Start Program teacher and started buying and selling on eBay full time.
Since then he's opened Nowhere, an antique shop on Tod Avenue Northwest in Warren, and paid off his house on the city's northwest side with proceeds from his eBay sales.
How's business? "People are always asking my wife how she feels about it. She's a teacher in Solon," said Orfin, 28, grinning. "She says it's hard to complain when I'm making more in a day selling on eBay than she makes in a day teaching."
Orfin is one of many Mahoning Valley entrepreneurs who have made a full-time or part-time occupation or a lucrative hobby out of buying and selling on eBay.
They have plenty of company. Founded in 1995, the online auction site has 42.4 million registered users all over the world.
Donating their proceeds
For retired teachers David and Linda Evans of Canfield, the online auction offers a way to sell their handcrafted Shaker-style wood boxes.
They've raised more than $4,800 over the past three years, all donated to their favorite charities, and they're on track to raise $2,000 this year. "We could do more, but we don't want it to become a job," he said.
Evans said he was always interested in woodworking but didn't have time for it while he was teaching. After retirement, he began searching for a project.
Drawn by the simple, utilitarian style the religious sect used to make furniture and boxes in the 1700s, he learned to follow the same painstaking processes. He boils the wood to make it bend into an oval shape and uses tiny wood pegs to assemble the parts. His wife helps with staining or painting the finished boxes, sometimes sanding them for an aged look.
Next, Evans sets up the handcrafted boxes for a photo session and posts the best digital photograph on eBay, along with a detailed description. The couple sets their minimum bid at about half the price the boxes sell for at museum stores they've visited. "My hourly rate stinks," he quipped.
Bidders from as far away as Japan and the North Pole have made offers in the weeklong online auction process, and the Evans get a thrill out of watching the prices climb as bidders compete for their wares.
"We have to discipline ourselves," he said. "We only check once a day."
A clear profit
Drinking glasses embellished with cartoon characters have been an eBay moneymaker for Mark Chase, a New Wilmington, Pa., resident and assistant communication professor at Slippery Rock University. His biggest sale to date was a 1977 Pepsi Cola glass embellished with a cartoon character that went for $5,000.
Chase spends his weekends and summers prowling flea markets and garage sales for treasures. During the summer, his online sales totals average between $1,000 and $2,000 a week.
"The university asked me to teach a summer class, but I turned them down," he said. "I could make that much in a good morning at a flea market."
Chase also coordinated the successful eBay sale of hundreds pieces of movie memorabilia donated to the university by Robert Leffingwell, a communication professor who died in 2000.
Leffingwell was a movie reviewer and collector, and the films, celebrity photos and equipment and other mementos he left to the school have raised more than $4,000 in the online auction. The money will go to a scholarship fund in Leffingwell's name.
Led to the lights
Randy Gains has been the owner of Engine Machine Service in Canfield since 1989, but he branched into a new online business selling LED lights about 18 months ago. With his eBay sales averaging $2,000 or more a month, Gains' online business, LED Lighting by EMS, has already earned the online auction company's Power Seller designation.
The lights are powered by light-emitting diodes, which use very little electricity and last much longer than most other lighting sources. Durability is what sold him on the lights, Gains said, remembering the salesman who threw a small LED light to the concrete floor of his machine shop.
"It didn't break, and I couldn't believe it. I wanted one," he recalled.
The lights sell well on eBay, Gains explained, because most retailers offer only a limited selection.
His customers often prefer to buy their LED task lights, camping lanterns, flashlights and other products at a set price instead of bidding on them. He pays eBay an extra fee for an online store that enables him to list items with a "buy it now" price.
The Canfield resident got one order from a dentist in Singapore and others came from Scotland and Australia. In eBay sales, the customer pays the shipping costs.
Donna Zagotti of Austintown worked full time before her infant daughter was born last year, but now her part-time eBay sales business is bringing in enough cash to supplement her husband's income so that she can stay home. All she needed to start her home business was a computer, Internet access, a scanner or digital camera and a product.
Her first venture was selling her own booklet of 450 phrases for scrapbook hobbyists. She wrote the book herself, had it printed and posted it on eBay just to see what would happen.
The idea worked -- so far she's sold more than 150, at prices ranging from $5.50 to $15.
About a month ago, Zagotti diversified, adding hand-decorated denim overalls for babies and toddlers to her eBay inventory. She sews ribbon, lace, ruffles and other embellishments to the denim pants, then sells the one-of-a-kind items online. Sales topped $750 in the first month.
"Right now I'm still buying the overalls at stores, but I might need to find a distributor soon if sales keep up like this," she said.
Hobby pays off
James LaCivita of Hubbard has turned his love of sports collectibles into a second business. Besides working full time at his family's Deer Creek Golf Course in Hubbard, he spends about 16 hours a week buying and selling autographed sports memorabilia on eBay.
He said his sales average between $1,200 and $1,500 a week, and his profit generally falls between 10 percent and 20 percent of his sales. "These things work well on eBay because you usually can't buy them in a store," LaCivita said.
Orfin, the full-time eBay seller from Warren, said he's reached Power Seller status and his sales continue to climb, even though competition on eBay has doubled and tripled many times over. About 2,000 Star Wars toys were listed in 1997, he said as an example, compared with 35,000 listed in that category now.
But there's still plenty of sales potential, he explained, because the number of international users is also multiplying as more people all over the world gain Internet access. "There are billions of people out there, and they don't have what we have," he said.
And as most eBay sellers have learned, you never know what will sell. Orfin likes to tell about an old restaurant logo coffee mug a friend was trying to sell for $2 at his antique shop. On a whim, Orfin put on eBay.
In the first day, bidders drove the price up to $10, and by week's end he was amazed to see that the winning bidder bought it for $124.50. When Orfin called the friend to share the news, he learned the friend had another, identical mug. Orfin contacted the second highest bidder who also agreed to pay $124.50 for the second mug.
"Can you believe that?" Orfin said. "He made almost $250 on two mugs he probably paid 25 cents for at a garage sale."