Silvia Sweaney has always dreamed of owning a telescope, and now she figures there is a good reason to buy one.
"I was looking to spend $1,200," said Sweaney, 34, ogling the gleaming tubes of mostly expensive telescopes on display at a Scope City store in Costa Mesa. "Because of Halley's Comet, I'm going to spend $2,400--which really means $3,000, including accessories."
People such as Sweaney have caught Scope City President Maurice Sweiss, among other retailers, pleasantly off guard. The comet, which makes an appearance near Earth once every 76 years, won't be visible to the naked eye until about December, but customers are already flooding retailers with requests for amateur astronomical equipment.
New Models Launched
"There are a lot of Baby Boomers out there who wanted telescopes as kids and found later they couldn't afford one," Sweiss said. "I think Halley's Comet is going to justify that purchase. It's going to be, 'Well, honey, everybody's doing it, so let's get one.' "
Indeed, telescope manufacturers large and small last year launched new model lines with names such as Comet Catcher, Comet Seeker, Comet Finder and even Halleyscope in anticipation of what they expect to be their best year ever.
The boom in sales of telescopes and binoculars reflects what happened the last time Halley's Comet came near the Earth in 1910.
An article that appeared in the New York Times on May 1, 1910, for example, said demand for optical instruments almost exhausted supply and sent retailers scurrying for products aimed at the short-term market.
At the time, a downtown New York hardware store offered a telescope for $1 that was "manufactured expressly for the comet trade," the article said, and pawnshops, offering binoculars priced from $1 to $10, sold out.
But since quality instruments cannot be cranked out like Cabbage Patch dolls, many manufacturers these days are worried that they will not be able to meet the demands of retailers already clamoring for more.
"Will we meet demand?" asked Kevin Ritschel, vice president of marketing for Torrance-based Celestron International Corp., which made a reputation selling more-expensive products for serious amateurs. "Probably not. I don't think anyone will." Nonetheless, he added, "I want to ride the tail of that comet as much as I can."
Last year, Celestron broke with tradition and introduced a lower-priced Cometron and Comet Catcher line aimed at the mass market.
"We're trying like hell to make as many as we can," he said. "We've already increased production 50% in the last six months and plan to double again over the next five months."
"Halley's Comet fever is already here," agreed John Diebel, president of Meade Instruments of Costa Mesa, which began marketing a Comet Seeker line of telescopes last year. "The earliness with which this has caught on caught us by surprise."
Meade normally sells about 2,000 telescopes a month nationwide, Diebel said, and he expects that to increase to 4,000 a month "within the next three months."
Executives at Bushnell in Pasadena, a division of Rochester, N.Y.-based Bausch & Lomb Inc., which controls an estimated 45% of the binocular market in the United States, are also gearing up to meet increased demand for optics during the time the comet is visible, which is expected to be several months.
The company expects a 10% increase in binocular sales over the next year, said John Weatherell, Bushnell's advertising director. "But the orders we're already getting for telescopes are incredible," he added. He said that, based on preliminary orders, sales this year will be two or three times what they were in 1984.
"It's crazy out there. Everybody's going for that telescope."
But not everyone is happy about the fact that the telescope business is looking up.
"I basically try to discourage people from buying telescopes," said astronomer Stephen Edberg of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, which is headquarters for International Halley Watch, a group that will be organizing observations of the comet.
"Using a (quality) telescope, just like using a computer, takes practice and persistence," Edberg said. "The fact of the matter is, unaided eyes or a pair of (average) binoculars are all anybody . . . is going to need."
What's more, he said, "John and Mary Smith standing in their front yard in a suburban area are simply not going to see Halley's Comet."
He said Halley's Comet on this visit is going to be farther from the Earth than it was during its last visit and, because of its orbital configuration, the comet will be best seen in the Southern Hemisphere. He added that "light pollution"--light from man-made sources that impairs telescope viewing at night--will make the comet at best only a faint, ghostly apparition.
Even under ideal conditions, said Alan M. MacRobert, editorial director of the books and products division of Cambridge, Mass.-based Sky & Telescope magazine, "Venus will be over 100 times brighter" than Halley's Comet.
Olympics for Sykwatchers
Nonetheless, for telescope manufacturers and retailers, Halley's Comet is to the astronomy business what the Olympics are to sports--a regular international event that few will want to miss.
With that idea in mind, Burt Rubin, 38, who claims to deal in "sociological phenomena," has founded Halley Optical Corp. of New York, using the money he made by selling Easy Wider, the company he founded in 1971 that makes cigarette rolling papers and smoking paraphernalia.
His new company was formed to make and distribute the Halleyscope, which lists for $199. He calls it a low-cost, easy-to-use "consumer-friendly telescope." While he is not yet making a profit off the venture, he said the response has been positive.
"We've gotten letters back from customers saying things like 'boss scope,' 'awesome' and 'good stuff,' " he said.
Others, however, haven't been as quick to cash in on what they expect to be a short-lived boom.
Mark Tracy, owner of Los Angeles Optical Co. of North Hollywood, says: "I'm not interested in selling to a hysterical market. I'm interested in what's going to happen over the next 14 to 16 months with regard to Halley's Comet--but I'm also interested in the lack of Halley's Comet."
For that reason, Tracy has decided not to follow the herd by overstocking his store and stepping up advertising.
But as far as Scope City's Sweiss is concerned, "everybody's cashing in on it."
Looking forward to unprecedented sales over the next year, Sweiss, who now operates three stores in Costa Mesa, Simi Valley and Torrance, said he plans to add "new Scope City locations in San Diego, Santa Barbara, Encino, Las Vegas and San Francisco--thanks to Halley's Comet."