We might as well dispute whether its the upper or the under blade of a pair of scissors that cuts the paper, as whether value is governed by usefulness or the cost of production.
- Alfred Marshall,
Principles of Economics
My husband and I were full-time students with part-time jobs when the handsome young man knocked at our apartment door. He was a student, too, he said, and to pay his way he was selling bargain-priced World Book Encyclopedias to education-minded people like ourselves.
We warmed both to the man and his product right away. Lucky for him, my mother used to sell the same encyclopedia and I was familiar with the name. Lucky for us, we had been chosen to receive the entire set plus an attractive bookcase free, just for allowing our name to be used in their upcoming advertising brochures. All we had to pay for, he said, was the annual yearbook which was about $25 a year. We also had the option of paying for the next 10 yearbooks in monthly installments up front, rather than be bothered with a bill year after year.
We didnt have much money those days, but we knew a bargain when we saw one. So, we signed on the dotted line, agreed to pay the up-front cost of the yearbooks, and patted ourselves on the back for being so wise.
It wasnt until the contract arrived in the mail that we discovered our nice young salesman wasnt quite as up-front with us as we were with him. Seems we had agreed to pay nearly $300 in up-front charges plus the cost of each yearbook when it came due.
When I called the company to complain, the manager apologized for his new salesman who didnt quite have his facts right, but assured us we were still getting a wonderful bargain and he hoped we wouldnt cancel - which I did before he finished his speech.
The other day I bought the entire 2001 World Book Encyclopedia on CD-ROM for my computer for $4.95, 100 times less than my freebie would have cost 40 years ago.
Im more cautious before I sign contracts today, but if theres anything that tempts me to accept a too-good-to-be-true offer its those really cheap books you get by joining a book club. Not that I need any more books, but when I received an enticing brochure about a history book club, I knew a bargain when I saw one. Sometimes the computer software and the books I have to return too often to the library arent enough when Im in the midst of serious research. So, when the offer said, save $154 off publishers price, I checked all the fine print and learned I could receive these wonderful books by promising to buy only three more books at reduced prices in the next two years. I didnt see how I could lose.
Now that I have my expensive Encyclopedia of World History and The Oxford Companion to U.S. History, two books for the price of my one CD encyclopedia, Im still wondering how the publishers can make any money on practically a giveaway.
One of the books is beautiful, coffee-table sized, and profusely illustrated. The other has no pictures, but the 940-page volume was published this year and has loads of new topics not included in other books. Perhaps, without pictures and with smaller than usual type this one didnt sell as well as the publisher hoped. But I cant imagine how the other book could have been sold for so little.
Perhaps Ill realize to my horror that all their books are as expensive as the original price of my freebies, but Ill be choosy - theres nothing in the contract that says how much I have to spend.
What I think my two experiences half a lifetime apart tell me is that its not only the events of Sept. 11 that changed America, nor is it entirely due to our favorite catch-all reason, technology. My guess is its a case of altered values. A faster-paced lifestyle, wanting something to look at rather than something to work at, and, sadly, a culture thats reading less have devalued the things former generations revered.
But sound the trumpet and give a cheer! For those of us who still value those things, todays economy is bargain-priced.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to seabara@aol. com.)
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