Final chapter in this saga: Contacted the seller and he swears he does not smoke and that it's possibly the packing material. Sure enough, there was some pink foam that reeked like cigarette smoke. It's amazing how pervasive that odor is.
Lessons learned for those who may be starting out and reading this thread:
1. Join this forum and ask for help finding a deck and other hardware. Either someone with great knowledge will sell you a deck in known working condition, or they will help you find it on eBay
. Don't go it alone.
2. Be prepared to shell out some cash. $1,000 should get you where you want to be, maybe less if you have existing hardware like a capture card and computer.
3. When you see a VHS transfer service asking for $20-40 per tape, it's actually a pretty good deal. This process is not for the faint of heart, if you're concerned about quality anyway. Consider having an expert do it for you instead of incurring the headaches of DIY.
4. Don't try to gather equipment one month before you want your project to be delivered. It's going to take you at least that long to track down the hardware and read the threads to learn how best to use it. Give yourself lots of time, or you'll be an overspending spazz like myself.
5. Pay for the Premium membership upgrade. These topics are very niche and the site admins (not to mention other members) have extensive knowledge and experience. You'll need to rely on their help far beyond the hardware acquisition phase (I know I will). Go ahead, pay for their lunch today, they deserve it.