What’s a sixer of Tecate worth? Engelbert Humperdinck Christmas album?

The barter system is making a quiet comeback

The liner notes add value!
  • The liner notes add value!

Dear Hipster:

I own a moderately beat pickup truck, which I do not really drive all that much on account of not wanting to pay for the gas. I call her Delores, and, before anyone out there gets any funny ideas, I have c alled her that since before any pretty, genocidal HBO robots came along and made it kind of a creepy name. I keep her around because, when it’s time to transport something unwieldy or disgusting, nothing else will do, and, if I am being honest, because I am pretty attached to her. Anyways, as anybody who has ever owned a truck or cargo van knows, I get a lot of requests from friends along the lines of, “Can you help me out with the truck this weekend?” or, preferably, “Hey, can I borrow your truck this weekend?” Invariably, I receive offers of beers, dinners, or other goods and services as consideration for the use of my truck and/or my person. Seldom, if ever, does anyone offer money. Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally cool with it, and, honestly, I would happily let my friends use my stuff if it’s helpful to them. They don’t really need to give me a sixer of Tecate or whatever, but they always do. I hear the barter system is making a kind of quiet, hipster comeback these days; and I guess the old “beer for truck” principle is all a part of that, although as far as I can tell, people have been buying pizza and beer in exchange for help on moving day since time immemorial. What I want to know is, assuming this quid pro quo exchange is as hipster as I think it is, what are the rules, if any, for bartering in the modern world?

— Len

Some hipsters would definitely prefer paying down their bar tabs with vintage typewriters instead of cold hard cash, and, I mean, can you really blame them? All things being equal, if your options are “sell junk, get money, buy beer” or “buy beer with junk,” which one are you going to go with? If Occam were alive today, he would probably trade in his spare treatises on efficient reasoning for a straight razor shave and a shot of small-batch bourbon at the nearest hipster barber shop.

As far as the “rules” of bartering in the New Millennium, there are, to my knowledge, only three:

(1) Beer is almost always cool;

(2) I believe promises when they materialize, not before; and

(3) It’s worse to offer something insultingly valueless than nothing at all.

Thus, if you loan your truck out, you might get something in return. Six beers is probably fine; a promise to “buy tacos sometime soon” is about as good as two birds in a bush somewhere; and a 1980s Engelbert Humperdinck Christmas album with a giant scratch on the B-side, no liner notes, and, oh by the way, an empty gas tank is definitely grounds for friend divorce.

At bottom, this is the kind of thing that must be guided by simple human intuition. Hard and fast rules are best left in the realm of cash money transactions. When you’re bartering, no such exacting standards prevail, but you should never make the mistake of assuming a Wild West, anything goes mentality. After all, in the Wild West, people died for less than an empty promise.

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