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When you dream you're window-shopping in a mail-order mall

By MELVIN MADDOCKS / October 21, 1983



Even before the leaves have fallen, the Christmas catalogs begin fluttering into the mailbox. Earlier and earlier they come. Leafier and leafier they grow - and more and more of them every year.

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A conscientious person guilty of having a mailing address could do nothing between now and Dec. 25 but read catalogs - and still never catch up.

How is one to catalog-cope?

Consumer Reports devoted a cover story to the burgeoning mail-order business, comparing prices, speed of delivery, and such matters - even covering the all-important question: How do these folks perform when you send their merchandise back, hmm?

All well and good for the veteran, taking an advanced degree, as it were, in the art of mail-order shopping. But for the novice, the world of the catalog can be as bewildering as a foreign country. A simple sort of Baedeker guide becomes imperative, particularly at this season-of-seasons.

The first thing an innocent must grasp is that catalogs are written in a hyper-language not quite English. The most routine descriptions seem to be composed by breathlessly enthusiastic elves with their tiny fingers stuck on the italics keys. In catalogse, terms like ''marvelous'' and ''fascinating'' rate as understatements. Why, every other sentence - at least! - ends with an exclamation point!

The parenthetic gasp of astonishment is obligatory - (''Yes, you read that right!''). In this case, the gasp is dedicated to a ''chess computer that actually moves its own pieces!'' - although we did not find ourself gasping until we came to the price: $499.

A reader will have begun to master the craft of catalog-survival when he or she starts skipping the adjectives. To the catalog writer, adjectives may be the most important words in the language. But to the reader, they are ritual rather than revelation. In all clothes catalogs, for instance, ''flawless'' invariably goes with ''simplicity,'' ''timeless'' with ''styling,'' ''flowing'' with ''lines,'' ''true'' with ''classic.''

L.L. Bean adjectives are refreshingly sober, but equally redundant. All Bean goods are either ''snug'' or ''comfortable'' or ''long-wearing'' or ''strong'' or ''durable.'' When ecstasy reaches its height in Freeport, Maine, an L.L. Bean product may be described as ''very well-constructed.''

Perhaps. But such prose is not ''tightly woven,'' to borrow another favorite phrase.

Once a catalog reader has learned to ignore the adjectives, he or she can take another giant step in catalog-coping by paying absolutely no attention to color identification. Since catalog colors, as printed, are marginally misleading, catalog writers have developed a vocabulary of rainbow vagueness to cover almost everything that is not black, white, or navy. There is heather mist. There is sand beige. When in doubt, there is taupe.

Those embarrassed people who slink by you on the street, wearing lemon-gold neckties against raspberry-pink shirts, are overtrusting catalog buyers. Let them be a lesson to you.

And speaking of ''you,'' any mail-order guide must warn you against the ''you'' approach of catalog prose. Catalog writers have a sneaky tendency to address you directly, whispering in your ear that ''this is for your fireplace . . . your kitchen.''

One '83 writer does more than whisper, fairly shouting, ''It's your home, and you're proud of it,'' while advising you to buy a combination of signpost and mailbox - to hold all those catalogs no doubt.

We could go on forever, cautioning you, for instance, against the wiles of food catalog writers, using their Julia Child voice to tempt you with smoked salmon prepared the Pacific Northwest Indian way, over an alderwood fire. Or there's the perennial ''closely guarded family recipe'' - a phrase applied this year to peanut brittle. Nobody says which family, but the price is $7.50 a pound.

Still, it's not a bad world, this never-land where all stainless steel is ''gleaming,'' all silk ''luxurious,'' and all values ''unprecedented'' - and even a humble welcome mat gets described as having a ''delightful personality.''

And don't say it's a mass-produced world! Where else can you find a ship in a bottle, with the sails made from your very own business cards?

Just the thing for your mantel - and we're glad we said it. But now it's time to stop. A person could all too easily start sounding like a catalog writer himself!!!