Caveat emptor: perils of mail-order royalty

Shopping by mail may become the great American pastime. After all, it's comfortable - one can avoid crowds, harried clerks, and the search for parking spaces at shopping malls. And one can order just about anything from a catalog: clothes, food, appliances, and more.

I recently thumbed through a book catalog with extraordinary bargains. According to its cover, I could make purchases with any of three major credit cards, be eligible for the $150,000 ''Live Like Royalty Sweepstakes,'' and receive a free gift with every order (the Crown Jewels, perhaps?) while saving up to 85 percent (or more) on over 2,000 books and records.

An intriguing set of propositions, I thought, as I perused their book selections. For only $9.98, I could purchase ''The Royal Family Pop-Up Book'': ''The royal family as they've never been seen before,'' the blurb said, and I certainly could not disagree.

''Great gifts for under $10'' included other titles not in my library: ''100 Greatest Boxers of All Time''; ''Diana: Her Latest Fashions'' (royalty is obviously big business); and ''Atlas of Battles: Strategy and Tactics, Civil War to Present.''

If I wanted better bargains, there were titles priced at under $6 each: ''Weight Training at Home for Women''; ''Fitness Over 40 for Men Only''; and ''How to Hypnotize Yourself and Others.'' Of course, my weight needs no training; almost all the 40-plus men I know are in terrific shape; and the soporific effect of most TV programs and some dinner parties is close enough to hypnotism for my purposes.

I noticed that ''What Color Is Your Parachute?'' (1982 edition) was only $1. 98. Even for outdated information, that's not a bad price. And, on the same page , I saw ''The One Minute Father'' and ''The One Minute Mother.'' The annotations , in these cases, did not indicate the number of pages in each book - undoubtedly a wise decision, as they can probably be read in one minute.

Just as I was debating whether or not to spend 20 cents to mail the entry blank for the ''Live Like Royalty Sweepstakes,'' I saw ''14,000 Quips and Quotes for Writers and Speakers.'' Five hundred and ninety-two pages of ''snappy sayings and clever remarks, guaranteed to add spice to any speech, writing, or conversation. From the absurd to the sarcastic to the quiet and reflective, this treasury ... offers something for anyone who has a point to make.'' Not bad, I thought, and all of this for just $8.98.

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