How the barter half lives

19 Jul 2006

Turning a big red paper clip into a three-bedroom house might sound like a miracle of biblical proportions — or one of the business deals of the century — but all it needs is patience, time and a website.

Kyle MacDonald (pictured) from Montreal in Canada managed such a feat; on 12 July last year he advertised in the barter section of the Craigslist website with the intention of trading a series of bigger and better novelty items in the hope of eventually possessing a house.

Over the course of the last 12 months he made a total of 14 transactions and encountered diverse characters, among them a TV star and an ageing rocker.

Having started with a red paper clip, MacDonald traded this for a fish-shaped pen and in turn swapped that for a ceramic doorknob. Every transaction took place in person; in his travels across North America he kept trading up, gaining and subsequently handing on a camping stove, a generator, a beer keg and electric Budweiser sign. Then followed a snowmobile, a trip to Yahk in the Canadian Rockies, a van and a recording contract — each item bartered for the other, with MacDonald relating the account of each deal in an entertaining and folksy fashion on his weblog.

As MacDonald explained on his site, the concept hinges on the idea of relative value; that the item he has to barter is sufficiently important to someone, somewhere to make it worth having.

All this time, MacDonald’s work didn’t go unnoticed and it led to appearances on Canadian and Japanese TV as well as an item on Good Morning America. Local radio stations were queuing up to interview him and it was one of these slots that led indirectly to his next breakthrough.

Enter Corbin Bernsen, the American actor best known for his role in TV’s LA Law in the Eighties. He heard one of those interviews in April and was so taken by the concept of MacDonald’s mission that he offered him a paid speaking role in his next movie, which Bernsen himself was starring in and directing.

But the offer wasn’t so straightforward to MacDonald, who by now had a year’s free rent in Phoenix, Arizona to trade. He felt that this wouldn’t be a fair transaction with Bernsen — who hardly needs accommodation — and so he kept the offer off his blog until he felt he had something that the actor would really want. In the end, the year’s free rent was bartered for the chance to spend an afternoon with the rock star Alice Cooper.

In May, MacDonald seemed to stretch his concept of relative value when he swapped the afternoon with Alice Cooper for a snow globe — not just any snow globe, but a motorised one featuring the Seventies band KISS.

But this is where Bernsen comes back in to the story, as he happens to be a snow globe collector who has amassed some 6,500 such items. With the movie offer still on the table, MacDonald now had an item that he believed Bernsen would genuinely want.
At this point a new player enters the scene — the town of Kipling in Saskatchewan, Canada (population: 1,140). Seeing an opportunity for publicity, the town entered the bidding with an item that it knew MacDonald would definitely want — a house.

The town bought an unoccupied three-bedroom, two-floor, 1,100-square-foot house on Main Street and offered it for trade. In return it planned to hold a talent competition to determine who will win the role in the movie, called Donna in Demand, which is to begin shooting this September. Bernsen himself is going to come to the town to judge the finals. Participants in the contest will have to make a donation to the town’s parks department and to a charity. All of the publicity, it’s hoped, will put Kipling on the map.

For all the town’s efforts, MacDonald is arguably the one who has shown the greatest grasp of publicity in this whole story. He is nothing if not a shrewd businessman — his contact details are clearly available throughout the site and the photos and stories he amassed over the past year are free for anyone to reference or use. He accepted the town’s offer and now lives, for the time being at least, in Kipling. A quirky story and a happy ending — clearly, MacDonald is loving it.

By Gordon Smith