Let's start the week with a cautionary tale. If you happen to be in a street market (or any other downscale environment where upscale goods are on offer) and are suddenly swept over by the helpless desire to acquire some gaudy fake purse to shock your neighbors and awe your girlfriends, take some deep breaths of fresh air. Because even in the dodgy-merchandise world, there are good fakes and bad.
For me that hit home thanks to a visit to the Cao da Jie market, hard by the train station in Guangzhou, China. This is a Valhalla of counterfeit goods, from watches to clothes to shoes, with three buildings selling three levels of Schmada, Schmolex, and Schmacobs as far as the eye could see.
Foot-weary from trudging through so many alleys of glitzy goods wrapped in protective plastic, I finally saw it. The It Bag. A half-moon shaped Louis Schmuitton in quilted leather festooned with the LV logo. The leather was real, as was the lovely suede interior, all sealed up with heavy metal clasps. As a final, perfect, arriviste touch, it was embellished with ruff of fake fur around the zip. It was a stonking bag, no question about it. As fakes went, it was as good as the Romans copying the Greek Venus de Milo: if you couldn't have the real thing (which I couldn't), this very fine copy would do nicely.
So I set about haggling with the stallholder. It was a vicious back-and-forth; at one point she was literally snarling at me. It took a very firm walk-away on my part to convince her I didn't want to spend $20--$18 was my final offer.
Done. Suddenly all smiles, she took my money, went into the cramped cupboard in the back of the shop, and emerged with a pristine version of the purse, wrapped in heavy plastic. "This one doesn't have a scratch on the clasp like the demo model," she mimed.
OK! Until I was 7000 miles away, unwrapping the bag and taking out the paper stuffing. It was then that I learned with quick and cruel certainty that I (recently billed by my publisher as an "expert shopper") had been had. By an Olympic-calibre ripper-offer, but still. The lovely suede interior of the bag? In my version, it was mere sueded cloth. The lovely metal clasps? Faulty after two closings.
The bag still got me quick service when I slung it in certain kinds of shops, but I always resented its smug moralizing faultiness and so got rid of it after a month or so.
The thing is, I realize now that I wouldn't have kept it much longer than that even if it was in perfect nick when I unwrapped it. There's a huge difference between acquiring something that's old, authentic, and undervalued at a bargain price, and acquiring something brand new and innately deceptive on the cheap. The former takes skill, experience, discernment. The latter takes only the willingness to haggle viciously. When I pretended to walk away, I just should have kept going.