Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Consumerism: In Praise of Used Winter Gear

If anyone wants to understand my friend Jim Close’s point of view on how long something should last, all they have to see is the inside of his car.

When he sold his old Honda and bought a Prism, he pulled the greasy leather cover off the old steering wheel to reuse. It took hours to de-thread the old cover, and hours more to fasten it, using the same thread, to the steering wheel of his new car. But the thread broke partway through, so he had to use other things to attach it.

“You know,” I told him. “A new cover only costs about $10.”

“Why should I get a new one? This one works fine.”

“But look at it. You’ve got thread, black electrical tape and what’s that white stuff?”

“Dental floss.”

I shook my head. “If I was a girl going out with you, and I saw that steering wheel, there wouldn’t be a second date.”

“That’s not the worst of it,” Jim said.

“Why? What’s worse?”

“It’s used dental floss.”

The reason I bring this up is I was afraid Jim wouldn’t be skiing in the Adirondacks this year. His 30-year-old wooden L.L. Bean skis were just about too worn to be used, and a binding had broken last year. Jim lives in Saratoga County, and we usually go out on three or four backcountry ski adventures in the Adirondacks each winter – Siamese Ponds, Pharaoh Lake, the High Peaks, Hoffman Notch, the Jackrabbit Trail.

I kept encouraging him to buy new gear, but he wouldn’t have it. Usually the only time he buys new equipment is when he’s forced to.

Like the time he brought what he thought was a 20-degree sleeping bag for a late-winter backpacking trip in the Smokey Mountains. The borrowed bag, which he had never tried out before the trip, turned out to be only a nylon cover. He shivered for two nights before finding a store.

Or the time he went backpacking on the Appalachian Trail with boots (a gift from a girlfriend) that he knew were a half-size too small. He suffered in those devices of torture for several days before reaching a supply store and surrendering his credit card.

But those skis have clearly seen their last snowplow. Even Jim admitted it. And he had a new idea.

“I can bring them back to L.L. Bean and exchange them,” he said.

It was true. L.L. Bean, like many outdoor stores, provided a lifetime warranty for all its products. Just bring it back at any time and say you’re not satisfied, and they’ll give you an even exchange or your money back.

“So what are you going to tell them?” I asked. “That after 30 years, you weren’t satisfied?”

“Well … yeah.”

“After skiing on them hundreds of times, applying pine tar and layers of wax with a blowtorch, bashing them against rocks, replacing the bindings several times, they weren’t good enough?

“Uh huh.”

It’s not that I was amazed at his audacity. I just couldn’t believe he’d want to get rid of something he’d spent so much time on. And I said as much.

“What am I supposed to do with them?” he asked. “Put them over my fireplace?”

“Something like that.”

“I’ll think about it.”

A few days ago I got a call from Jim. Turns out he had decided not to return the skis after all.

“Oh,” I said. “You decided to buy new ones? Or used ones?”

“No,” he said. “A guy I ride the bus with to work says he owns about 30 pairs. He said he’d give me one.”

So it looks like we’ll be skiing together in the Adirondacks after all. Assuming his boots hold up – they’re not in very good shape either.

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