Once upon a time, I got on a subway and took a trip way downtown in Manhattan. I wanted to buy a winter coat, and I wanted a seriously-good one.
The store I went to was aimed at serious hikers, serious explorers, serious outdoor enthusiasts. Besides coats, it had all sorts of equipment whose uses I could hardly guess ... hammers and picks and ropes and belts and metal clasps ... the place reeked of professionalism. And not only did the gear look serious, but the sales people were not just sales people who could parrot the grandiose and over-optimistic claims on various labels. These were people who knew something about the activity for which items were intended ... they knew.
I grabbed a salesman and told him what I was after. "Start at the top of the line," I told him, "and walk me down." I told him I wanted to be warm and I wanted a coat that would reach down below the small of my back and cover a bit of my ass. He heard me out without blinking and did as I requested.
The best coats were goose down filled, had strong zippers and cost something more than $400 ... a sizable price at the time. He led me to rack after rack of coats, getting progressively cheaper. Finally, we had gone the course and stood still.
My mind was still on rack number one -- the most expensive coat. I said as much and added that it was really out of my price range.
"Well, we do have seconds," he replied. "Same coat with some little flaw. They're about half the price." So I asked him to show me one of the blems, the ones that were blemished in some way. He pulled one off the rack. "Show me how it's flawed," I requested. He went over the coat seam by seam, zipper tooth by zipper tooth and finally announced, "I can't find it." This guy wasn't some car salesman. He was a serious person as far as I could judge -- selling quality goods with a quality experience to back up his role as salesman. Still, I was nervous.
"This is a warm coat, right?" I asked, looking for reassurance.
"You'd have to be dead at the South Pole to be cold in this coat," he replied.
And I bought it. The coat lasted for years and was, if anything, too warm for the conditions under which I wore it -- deep winter, sub-freezing temperatures ... this coat seemed to be built for the mirror image of hell... if anything, too warm. It was precisely what I had asked for.
Remembering that day, I thought how nice it was that there was a time when sales outlets thought enough of their products to acknowledge that some were not as good as the best -- seconds that would do the job, but still didn't measure up to exacting standards. There was a pride in excellence and a willingness within that pride to say what was good and what was not quite so good.
These days, everything is excellent and the purveyors can read labels.