When businesses close, customers often fall into different camps with their reactions. Those who didn’t like them assume it was because of bad business decisions and enjoy the schadenfreude joy of another’s misfortunes. If they were casual customers, they might think, “what a shame”, and move on. If you were fans of the business, you might often feel a greater sense of discomfort.
But when that business is an astronomy store that claimed the title of the oldest telescope retailer in Canada, dating back to 1975 as the first authorized Meade dealer in Canada, it feels more like losing a friend.
I can’t claim that Focus Scientific was the source of my first scope, as that honour goes to Sears probably, with a small hand-held scope as a kid that didn’t seem to show anything different than I could see with my naked eye. I can’t even complain that it was a typical department store scope problem, not even at that level, because it didn’t even come with a tripod of any sort, it was just handheld.
Instead, I went to Focus Scientific much later in life when I was 45 years old. My mother had passed on leaving a bit of money to the family as an inheritance, and I used some of my share to buy a Celestron NexStar 8SE. Before I decided, I spoke at length with the people working there at the time…mainly Kent, Tristan and Nathan. I worked through what I wanted to do and what challenges I wanted to avoid, conversations that steered me away from dobs, reflectors and refractors on AZ or EQ mounts. I was kind of looking for an all-around good scope, maybe a bit bigger than basic entry, maybe computerized, and while they were happy to sell me a scope, they still went through all the options with me over several visits first. It isn’t the right scope for everyone, but it remains absolutely the right scope for me.
Over the last 8 years, I frequently stopped by on my way home from work for a “simple question” or popped in on a Saturday morning to order something. I bought my son a scope there a few years ago, one of my best memories as a Dad. They helped us narrow it down, and he chose the 4SE Maksutov design for what he wanted. I influenced him a little, but not much. It’s what he wanted and he can run it himself.
This article isn’t about the reasons Focus Scientific closed. That is a long personal story involving Kent’s health, the nature of a business without a legal continuity plan, challenges dealing with trustees, best intentions of lots of people, and ultimately the closure of the shop and a lot of people losing their jobs. The pandemic certainly didn’t help, but Kent, Tristan, Glenn, Tariq, Aidan and others were doing their best. Until it wasn’t enough to overcome a structural problem, and the store closed. It’s a story with lots of twists and turns, but it isn’t my story to tell.
Their website is still running, no one has put up a virtual notice to say that they’re gone, but the store changed locations and then closed, the phones were disconnected long ago, and then a few weeks ago, a notice came out of an upcoming auction of the assets from the store.
All their cabinets, phones, and computers. Desks and tools too. A sad process as the trustee winds up a business that was the starting point for many people becoming amateur astronomers.
But then another emotion came along. It felt like a cross between Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, and the Ferengi’s Sixth Rule of Acquisition – “Never allow family or friends to stand in the way of opportunity.” Along with all the furnishings, the auction would sell off the remaining inventory from the store. I had assumed much of it would have been returned for credit where possible, but the announcement came out, along with a catalog of items, with pictures.
I have very little experience with auctions other than a few light country auctions or talking to a few friends and family members who enjoy them. I checked out the catalog and saw quite a few things that interested me. Some lots were large items, but many were small. Some seemed to be strangely bundled. Some items were obviously new; others were equally obviously used. And like any other hobbyist out there, I’m not against acquiring new astronomy gear at a good price, if a deal could be found.
The catalog had 199 lots and for just the astronomy stuff, I estimated its “new value” at about $65,000 in stock. Some items were hard to estimate the original price as they were in large lots, so that is a very basic approximation from an unseasoned auction participant. Roughly speaking, those ~200 lots fell into 7 main categories. I’m going to go into detail on the categories as it is fascinating to see the range of objects, and since the auction is over, you can follow along at home and see what might have piqued your interest.
For telescopes, they had 19 lots in total. There were complete telescopes packages, including tubes / mounts / tripods, such as the two high-end scope options: a Skywatcher 16” Flextube Dobsonian and a Celestron CPC Deluxe 1100 Edge HD. They also had Celestron’s SE series well-represented with 8”, 6”, 5” and 4” versions. They had a decent solar scope in the form of a Meade Coronado SolarMax II 60 (although it was missing the 90-degree filter on the back). They also had miscellaneous scopes of various types such as Skywatcher EVOStar 100ED, 8” Celestron Schmidt, Celestron 80 EQ Powerseeker, and a Skywatcher 6” 150P Dobsonian. They had three Williams Optics guiding scopes, including the Zenith Star 61, a UNIGuide 50, and a UNIGuide 32, as well as a Skywatcher EVOGuide 50ED. They even had spotting scopes like the Vortex Diamondback HD 20-65X85 (3 of them) and a Celestron Landscout 12-36×60 (noted as a customer return).
If you were interested in mounts and tripods without tubes, you had a good selection of 19 lots to choose from…simple AZ tripods for cameras or small scopes (Celestron Regal M.82052 premium and Trailseeker M.82050, Manfrotto MT055XPRO3, Skywatcher Star Adventurer Photographic Mount, and one unnamed one simply labelled “telescope mount with aluminum tripod”); larger more professional mounts such as Skywatcher EQM-35, AZ-EQ5 Pro, EQ6-R Pro, HEQ5 Pro); and some other options for more specific needs like the Meade LX70 EQ mount, a Skywatcher AZ5, a Celestron Advanced GT mount (for parts only), and a Celestron heavy-duty Alt-Az tripod with mount. And let’s not forget vintage tripods bundled together that looked like they had been out in the rain for some time.
There were also varying levels of binoculars ranging from the $1000 Swarovskis (CL Pocket 10×25) to much simpler models, 15 lots in all, but some were bundled in groups of 2 or 3 and some were multiple copies of the same model. Celestron was the most represented for brands, including Skymaster Pro 20×80 (multiple copies); Skymaster 15×70 (multiple copies); Skymaster 25×100 FUV3; Echelon 20X70; FoV 7.4 8×24; 20-100×70; and 10-30×50. There were also TASCO Zip Focus and Focus Free 8×25, Bausch & Lomb, Bushnell Ultra Wides, and an Orion Giant View 15X70s.
Astrophotography cameras were a huge grouping, with some 21 lots. NexImage 5s, QHY268C 26MP APS-C Color CMOS, QHY163 COLDMOS), QHY462C 2.9UM X 2.9UM SONY CMOS (5 copies), MallinCam Starvision COLOUR CCD, and COSTAR S-C400P DIGITAL IMAGER were thrown together and mixed and matched with QHY5-II mini guide scopes and QHY5L-II-C CMOS guider / planetary cameras. Plus a couple of QHYOAG-L Off-Axis Guiders. Another lot was just “assorted digital imagers”, most looking to be 15+-year-old webcams. And then randomly, a Hyper Star lens. All by itself, no apparent box, nothing to identify it even, no indication if it was used (although it must have been since they don’t make them anymore, I don’t think).
The next two categories were evidence that the seller / auctioneer had basically given up on breaking things into appropriate lots or just didn’t have any idea what they were doing. Entire collections were bundled together, often making no sense.
For lenses, they had a combined lot, for example, with 142MM rings, an Orion collimating eyepiece, and an Antares 12.5mm Plossl. Great if you need the rings or the EP, or all three, or if it was cheap, but a strange combo. They just happened to be sitting close together in the cabinet when they took pictures. They sold single lots for a 9mm Baader Morpheus 76 degree wide-field EP and a 4.5mm of the same type. And then they bundled Hyperion 10mm, 17mm and 24mm EPs together in one set with 17mm, 24mm, and 31mm in another. Except those were sold as UNITS instead (if you don’t know the difference, if you bid on a lot, the final price is 1 lot x 1 bid = what you bid; if you bid on a lot with units, it is 3 units x 1 bid = 3x what you bid!). But would everyone want the bundle enough to bid separately? Another lot was an assortment of Celestron X-Cel LX Barlow (1.25”), X-Cel LX 3x barlow (more than one), a 6.3F focal reducer, and 7 other things not specified. Literally it was a shelf of one of the EP cabinets. All together. Bam, that’s a “lot”. They did have a Celestron Ultima-LX 22mm 70-degree EP that looked in good shape. They also had a Celestron 2” EP and filter kit, standard set of a bunch of EPs that many won’t use, along with cheap filters and a barlow. But the “jewel” of the collection was a TeleVue Apollo 11 Commemorative Limited Edition Eyepiece. You can’t order them easily online from regular dealers, and I saw a few online going for as high as $1500. Might be worth it to someone, right?
But wait, there’s more. There was a set of Antares W70 series EPs and they bundled together a 2×4.3mm, 6mm, 9.7mm, 10mm, 2x15mm, 17mm, and a 20mm. Another set bundled some Televue items together, namely a t-ring with 8mm, 15mm, 20mm and 32mm plossls, as well as a 2.5x PowerMate. Great, if you needed all those. Lousy, if you didn’t.
When it came to filters, that’s where it got ridiculous. At least for the amateur astronomer. Now, let’s start off by noting that many people have very STRONG views about which filters are better for what, and I’m staying neutral on that topic. I’m just pointing out that they had Astronomik Filters including UHC 2”, SII 6nm CCD 36mm, CLS-CCD 31mm, and an OIII 1.25 visual. All separate, easy to bid on. Sounds great right? Then they had a lot called “Baader Planetarium Assorted 36mm Filters”. Sold as units, i.e, if there were 6, you buy all 6 at whatever per unit price you bid, but in the units were 4 filters that were the same (all UHC). I am saving a lot of details about individual items to the part about how the auction unfolded, but I’ll drop a spoiler here. Apparently, some people in Toronto messaged around and found friends so they could split some of those lots. Like standing at a restaurant holding out a ticket saying, “Single? Anyone have room for a single?”.
They had some nice filters in there, including in the other Baader assorted 2” filters, plus some assorted Celestron ones, and a group of Baader and Celestron together. Every single multi-filter lot included multiple duplicates. And then the weird one. A giant collection of assorted Antares filters, including the basic ones that often come with multiple scope collections plus moon filters, all totalling up to one lot of … wait for it … 60 filters across maybe 10 different types. Oy vey. Oh, I forgot to mention. They did have a very nice QHYCCD motor-driven color filter wheel though.
In the actual telescope accessories, 7 were diagonals, ranging from twist/quick lock 2” to regular stock 1.25” models. Oh, and a binoviewer. After that, it was pretty hit and miss. Two Starsense Auto-Align tools. Solar filters. A bunch of Williams Optics accessories that I couldn’t even tell what they were for, with no help from the description. Another “grab bag” lot with a Celestron focus motor, a Logic Drive DC motor, Star Pointer Pro, T-adapters and T-rings. Who knows what was in it? There was a viewing day, on the Monday. In Toronto. In person. During the day. Not many people could make it.
Another set had t-rings, cable releases, and bags of things that you couldn’t tell what they were. There was a good lot for Kendrick dew heaters, but again, so much bundled together, no real way to know if any of it was worth having or was used, etc. They had sets of dew shields in varying sizes – and bundled them together so you had to buy 6 of one size. A couple of Celestron cases, one rolling, one hard. A NexStar keypad. Five Celestron Powertanks, Lithium Ion (the newer larger ones). And as a surprise? They actually sold them separately. I’ll flag three other items for you as I’ll come back to them later…a set of four NeXYZ Smartphone Adapters, a collection of Nightwatch books and starfinders, and a Nikon camera.
Of the remaining 75 lots or so, there was a laundry list of assorted items. Including 17 related to microscopes and accessories. I don’t know anything about them, but a friend said that there were a few that looked like interesting opportunities for the discerning eye. Five work computers, Christmas decorations, 6 lots of office equipment, 26 cabinets, artwork, weighing scales, an oscilloscope, tools, drill press, grinder, bookshelves, a rack, and well, a remote control helicopter. Plus an air conditioner, microwave, rolling bins, and a large collection of reading glasses (?).
Whew. That’s a lot (no auction pun intended).
As I mentioned, I’m not super familiar with auctions, and I naively thought it would be like the simple ones I’ve participated in. Show up, bid, done. With the separate wrinkle that it was online. No problem.
Okay, first up, you had to formally pre-register, that made sense.
Then you had to provide your payment details, they don’t want you changing your mind after a bid.
Together, the pre-registration and payment details meant you had to be “pre-approved” to bid. Hmm, that’s a bit different, seemed overly formal, but okay.
And then you had to give them a written authorization for $1000 deposit just in case you absconded after bidding. Wait. I wasn’t expecting THAT.
But maybe that was a good thing? Not everyone would be comfortable doing that, which would mean fewer bidders potentially. Hmm…I was willing, they’re a legit business, not some fly-by-night website no one has ever heard of, so sure, I coughed up the authorization. They generally don’t take it unless you buy something and don’t pay. If they do take it upfront, they refund if you don’t buy anything. Easy peasy.
I was “approved” and ready to go. For the 199 different lots, I naively thought they would close at the same time for an online auction. But that would be stupid, wouldn’t it? If you were bidding on the first three lots, all identical Vortex Diamondback spotting scopes, you wouldn’t want to be the winner on all three. Instead, you would bid on #1, and if you get it, you wouldn’t bid on #2 or #3; if you didn’t, you might then bid on #2 and/or #3. Same deal for later bidding on multiple scopes. If you got a big one you wanted, would you go for another? Or two EQ mounts? Of course not. So the lots closed 1 minute apart starting at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, November 23 and running until around 12:30 p.m.
And with time ahead to plan, along with photos of objects, it was easy to do my due diligence. I went online and looked up the prices for all the big objects that interested me. And because I was fascinated, I then went and looked up ALL the prices I could on anything astronomy-related (#AnalRetentive). I looked at some guides on the site about bidding, along with four giant caveats everyone should have known for this auction.
First, as mentioned above, if it says LOT, your bid is the amount you pay; if it says UNITS, you pay your bid TIMES the # of units i.e., you’re bidding per unit and you’re buying ALL units. I went through my spreadsheet and colour-coded EVERY lot that was sold in UNITS to avoid getting caught up in bid fever and missing that important nuance.
Second, everyone pays sales tax on their purchases. I thought auctions were tax exempt, to be honest, partly as I thought most of the items sold at auction were classed as “used”. Not that “used” defines the tax status, but often it goes hand-in-hand. Nope, every item would require full sales + GST tax on top, 13%.
Third, the auction was in Toronto. Wait, what? Yep, they took all the materials to Toronto where the trustee who is running the bankruptcy is based and sold it from there. I confess I felt this was a gut-punch. I felt like this merchandise BELONGED in Ottawa. How DARE they take it to Toronto? It was our ONLY local store while Toronto has several in the area.
Plus the rules of the auction were that if it was a “small” lot, you had to pick it up by Friday; larger lots could wait until Tuesday. You could pay someone to box it up and ship it to you, but not the auctioneer, another private company that just does that stuff for people who buy at a distance. Another cost on top of your bid, obviously. So I could either add shipping or add a trip to Toronto. I have inlaws who live between Ottawa and Toronto, so I decided I would just make a run down to the warehouse if I won any bids and do some visiting along the way.
Fourth and finally, there was something on the cost I didn’t expect at all. I knew that auctioneers work on commission and it can be a somewhat hefty rate. If they sell all your Grandmother’s estate, and they had to come pick it up, auction it off, etc., they’ll frequently charge 30-50%, depending on how much they feel like gouging you and how competitive the market is in that area. I noticed the auctioneer’s rate was only 15%, which seemed fare more reasonable, until I realized the truth. The auctioneer’s premium was ON TOP of whatever you bid. It wasn’t covered as a portion of what you paid, it was additional.
If I won a bid, I would have to pay 13% tax and 15% auctioneer’s premium on top, AND have to drive to Toronto. It would have to be some deal to justify the trip.
The results of the auction
I would love to tell you that there were some great deals had, or that I won multiple items. I would even like to point you to all the final prices as a form of transparency to know what happened when I wasn’t looking. I couldn’t monitor the full auction while it was on as I had a work meeting, so I followed along as best I could while watching out of the corner of my eye. But the final prices aren’t available anywhere. Once the auction closed, the final bid disappeared from the site.
Everyone is probably the most interested in hearing about the telescopes. For the two big ones, they were worth about $5K each new. Up until a few hours before the auction, they were going for slightly over half-price for both, and they nudged up slightly, with both reportedly going for about 60% of new. That’s not a bad price, although not as amazing once you add in the premium, which raised it to about 70% of new. Still, 30% savings on a large once-in-a-lifetime purchase isn’t bad.
But for the rest of the scopes? All of the full kits went for almost retail, or in a couple of cases, even higher. I have an 8SE, my son has a 4SE, and I would love a 6SE tube. I figured the kit was worth $1100 so if I could get it for around $700-$800, I’d go for it. It went for $1050 before the premium. Or about $1200, $100 more than retail. There are supply chain issues, and some people have had trouble getting them at regular price, but La Maison d’Astronomie in Montreal had some in stock the day after, so they aren’t impossible to find. Of course, some of those would require shipping, and if you were living in Toronto, maybe you would still come out ahead. I stopped caring once it zoomed past $600 with no signs of stopping. The 8SE went for only slightly more than the 6SE, so that at least was a potential deal. The 4SE and 5SE ended up not too far off their discounted retail prices in May and June when Celestron has their normal sales.
I bid on the 6” Dobsonian which is worth about $450 normally (if you could find one right now). It’s not urgent for me to have one, or even a “must” eventually, just seemed like an okay deal. I bid at the $275 mark, but I was outbid the morning of the auction, and they in turn were outbid. I didn’t see the final price, but I was told it was around $400. With the premium, it would be slightly above retail, but with supply chain issues, probably worth it.
I also was intrigued by the Vortex Diamondback Spotting Scopes, worth about $750 new and with decent reviews, similar to their binos. They were the first three lots, and I was going to bid early, maybe try to snag one for half-price. They quickly jumped to $350-$400, and any new bids plus premium were going to do what happened in the end – drive up pricing above the natural rate for them, and much closer to retail. But there are no supply chain issues for them, lots of people have them in stock if I decide I want one. Heck, I can get it from Amazon Prime with free shipping.
Overall, the only scopes that seemed to go for a bit of a deal were the three highest-priced ones. At the lower price point, everything went pretty close to retail.
Similar stories were seen in the mount and tripod category. Most of the good stuff went for close to the original retail price, except for a couple of things people mentioned when they wrote to tell me their story. A friend was interested in a lonely AZ5, worth about $500, but not enough to drive to Toronto to bid on it, and it sat there all alone with almost no bidders the whole auction. It was up to about $50-$60 just before the auction and ended up going for $175 overall. Another local got the HEQ5 Pro, worth about $1500, and his final bid was $475. Another Centre member picked it up for him, and when he got the full “kit” he realized something that wasn’t clear in the pictures — it isn’t a full kit. Some of the cables are missing, as well as a couple of parts. He’ll have to order some pieces to complete the kit, but at a third of the original cost, he’ll probably come out ahead.
For binoculars, I followed a few cheaper ones in bundles, just in case they went for a low rate as I have some projects I could do if I took them apart. But destroying good binos is only palatable if I paid less than about $20 per pair for parts, and most went closer to retail than made any sense (again, almost no disruption in their supply).
For most of the lenses and filters, anyone bidding singly was probably outbid by consortia. It just didn’t make sense to bid singly. However, a local person wanted the Apollo commemorative eyepiece and he said he got it at a good price, so he was pretty happy.
Even though I was “out bid” early for the bigger items, I still followed eight small miscellaneous items. A remote control helicopter, worth about $175, was going pretty low for a while, but jumped up near the end to 75% of retail, which put me out easily.
There were two StarSense auto-aligners, and while I don’t NEED one, if there was a deal on it, I would have considered it. They went for almost 75-80% of retail before the premium. One went for full retail, plus they were paying the premium on top of that…in other words, higher than you can get it for on Amazon any day of the week and twice on Sundays. Maybe that was fever pitch bidding, or they didn’t see the premium surcharge (it reminds you when you bid though).
I watched out of curiosity for one item that might have been a missed deal for someone. The Hyper Star lens I mentioned is worth several hundred dollars (maybe $800, hard to tell from models and trends), and it went for $40. Someone got a deal and a guy who saw it but didn’t prioritize it was kicking himself afterwards.
I followed the NexStar keypad for a while, but I couldn’t tell “which” version of the hand controller it was (with RJ-45 inputs or a USB connector). The cables were RJ-45, but the one connector looked like it was USB. A guy bought it for $50 to replace a broken one on his scope, so he was hopeful. He never even noticed which type it was.
The Powertanks went for almost new, and one went for more than new with the premium added…WTH people? That shouldn’t have been fever or supply chain disruption, there were five of them.
I mentioned above that there was a Nikon camera in the mix, obviously used, but it had three nice lenses with it. Two of the lenses were worth about $500 each, the camera and other stuff another $500 or so, but they were a bit older models. I followed to see if maybe there might be an overlooked deal, but the collection was up to more than $750 or $800, which is a bit of a risk on untested used camera equipment. I’ll stick to Henry’s tested and certified stuff.
If you remember Focus Scientific, the store had a bookshelf near the front. Which held copies of Nightwatch, some free Astro guides, some commercial starfinders, some photos/artwork (I think at least one was from Nathan’s work), etc. The auction was selling it off as a lot, and let’s face it, who wants 13 copies of Nightwatch? Apparently someone who was willing to pay about $10 a book, because it was $130 as the last bid I saw, and I think it went higher. I had hoped to snag it for $40-$50 and then give the books away as door prizes for the RASC meetings or just at star parties to young fans. Alas, it was not to be.
Out of all of the lots, the one that intrigued me a bit more was a collection of four Celestron NeXYZ Smartphone Adapters. They retail for about $75 each, they were bundled as a group of 4, and so the estimated retail value is about $300. They’re on sale for Black Friday for $59 somewhere, so call it $240. I really didn’t think anyone would bid. Very few people realize you can do much with a smartphone, it’s the frequently-disparaged illegitimate child of the Astrophotography world. In addition, if you want an adapter, there are tons on Amazon for as low as $10 and some decent ones only going up to $25.
I wanted the lot for very specific reasons though. I already own the adapter, and it is the Cadillac of adapters. But you pay for that third axis control (the z-axis in the name) AND it doesn’t work as well on 2” or grenade-shaped lenses with tapered bevels near the viewing lens. I have some ideas of how to tweak / hack it to improve performance but I don’t want to try it on my own copy. But if I had four versions to experiment with, and I could perhaps get them for the price of one? I was in. Not enough to ONLY go for that if I didn’t win any other bids, but maybe. In the end, I didn’t win anything else, and although I didn’t think anyone would bid, the lot went for $175+. With the premium, that was way too high for me. So much for my keen insights into auction philosophy. Someone mentioned online that they thought it went as a consortium-based purchase in Toronto amongst four people who were going to split the lots.
I was really excited by the auction, but I felt disloyal to the store somehow. And when all the bids were done, there were very few deals to be had anywhere in it. Plus, after it was all over, a question came up that no one is confident of the actual answer. Lots of views, no definitive answer.
Since you were buying it at auction, which is sold “as is”, even though many of the items were new and close to retail price, you don’t seem to qualify for any sort of warranty. Paying close to retail for something with no warranty seemed a little too high and risky for my taste.
But I wonder. How big a deal would I have needed to not feel like I was helping auction off a friendship?
I’ll miss the store, I’ll miss the people. I didn’t miss any deals in the auction nor miss the auction when it was done. It was interesting, but I miss the friendship more.