When I was 10, a carnival barker tried to get me to spend money in her shooting gallery by tempting me with a "gen-u-ine imitation leather" prize. Even as a preteen, I laughed at her honesty.
I missed such honesty when I shopped recently for a leather sofa. I can understand a label that describes faux or imitation leather, but what the heck are bonded, bi-cast, Durahide and reconstituted? These were all phrases on labels at furniture stores in the Twin Cities. I don't know of anyone who wants to buy "reconstituted leather."
Even the salesman grimaced when I asked what it meant. After checking, he said it was the same as bonded leather, like a fabric. Right. Like gen-u-ine imitation leather.
Despite the obfuscation, there is an upside for leather furniture buyers these days.
What used to be a luxury item is now within nearly anyone's price range. Leather sofas under $1,000 are as common as an "everything's on sale" sale. Most leather sofas at Odds & Ends Furniture Gallery in St. Louis Park sell for $800 to $900, Dock 86 in Fridley sells many models for $700 to $900, and Ikea's Sater leather sofa is only $399.
On the other hand, it's just as easy to find $2,000 leather sofas at Gabberts, Macy's Home Store, Thomasville and Ethan Allen.
That leaves shoppers to wonder, is it all the real thing?
Yes and no. Just as a chef might say that a hot dog is "meat parts" rather than meat, leather labeled "bonded" is made from "reconstituted" leather scraps that are glued to a fabric backing, said Nancy Newcomb of Odds & Ends. "It's for people on the cusp between vinyl and leather," she said.
The trouble with some of the leather-like furniture, she said, is that consumers get even more confused about how much to pay. A bonded leather sofa should cost about $600, because the cost of bonded leather is as cheap as a low-grade fabric.
"It's the biggest fake of all time," said Dean Fossum, a buyer at Hom Furniture.
Some might say that the confusion felt by buyers is the furniture stores' fault, but consumers deserve blame, too. Many of us want to upgrade our taste without spending more money. Now many of us can afford leather furniture, even it isn't 100 percent top grain (the strongest top layer of the hide) and aniline dyed (color saturation not just on top).
Maybe we should just quit reading the labels. Does it really matter if the leather is made from the top layer of the hide or from scraps that have been pulverized and sprayed onto a padded frame?
No, what matters is that the furniture is comfortable and that the price is right -- as long as its wearability and other factors meet your needs (see tips below).
After I looked at dozens of leather sofas and chairs, I found more than a few polyurethane fabrics that fooled me at a fraction of the price. Meanwhile, some real leathers felt coarse and brittle.
Furniture stores don't do a good job of explaining leather, maybe because it's difficult to keep up with the slicing and dicing of textile technology.
There will always be the customer who must have 100 percent premium leather. The rest will just smile when someone asks if their bonded-leather sofa is real.
I might be thinking, "If you have to ask, it's not," but all I'll say is, "It's 100 percent gen-u-ine."