The Basement Binocular

I sold binoculars and spotting scopes for 15 years at a nature store on a wildlife sanctuary in NJ. I sold them to birders primarily, but also to hikers, kayakers, sporting event enthusiasts and to people “gearing up” to go on cruises or adventure tours like safaris, and who were told by their tour companies to purchase a pair of binoculars for the full enjoyment of the trip.

The law of averages suggests I also sold a few to peeping toms, but since they don’t self-identify as such I have no independent confirmation of that.

For those people who were current and regular optics users the sales process was fairly simple, owing to their familiarity with optics and what they needed and wanted. Most of them were trading up from inexpensive bins; many buying their “dream” binocular that they had saved for and lusted after for many years. It was a singular delight to help them attain their long sought-after “Holy Grail” optic.

But a majority of people I helped were buying their first “real” binocular (or spotting scope) and for those people the process was more challenging but equally rewarding. Often they knew little if anything about optics beyond the fact that they’re designed to magnify whatever you were looking at, and they are…(and these were common misconceptions) heavy and hard to hold, difficult to look through, and generally not a lot of fun to use.

Wait, what? Heavy, difficult, not fun? Are we talking about the same thing here? Why were these negative myths surrounding binoculars so common?

I blame the “Basement Binocular.”

From my experience, almost everyone has a Basement Binocular. It’s that old binocular, often of World War II vintage (or looking like it), that was stored in the basement (or attic), handed down from a family member now gone: “I think he/she watched birds. He/she was always considered the crazy one in the family.” It was heavy, dirty, and smelled a little funky (that’s known as “old optics smell”).

But worse than the shabby outward appearance and unfortunate aroma, in most cases Basement Binoculars simply don’t work or at best don’t work very well—and being unfamiliar with optics and their capabilities there’s no way for the inheritors of these ancient instruments to know this. 

The result? Generations of people form their opinions about binoculars based on Basement Binoculars that bear little resemblance to the light, bright, relatively inexpensive and yes, odor-free, optics available today. Which means there are an awful lot of people unknowingly depriving themselves of the simple joy of using binoculars to watch birds in their backyards, or better yet, to enrich the experience of everything they do outdoors.

I’ve seen my fair share of Basement Binoculars, brought to me by folks seeking an evaluation before they even consider purchasing a newer, more modern pair. So I know first-hand that many of these people are completely unaware of how inferior these old binoculars are, and consequently are pleasantly surprised at the optical quality, weight and price of newer models. If only everyone stuck with a Basement Binocular would just…

Wait, that’s it! That’s our mission, then. All of us with modern optics have to do our part to eliminate the Scourge of the Basement Binocular!

Show off your optics!

Whether you’re reading this in preparation of buying your own first good binocular (thank you!), or if you who already own good optics but may be saving for your “dream” pair—share your optics with friends and family who are not current users. You never know how many of them are missing out on the pleasures of nature optics because of a mistaken impression they’ve received from a vastly inferior binocular hanging out in their basement (I’ve seen it happen, many times).

No I’m not going to ask you to go rummaging around a dark, dank basement of a neighbor or family member who’s currently not enjoying the pleasures of using a binocular. I would never ask that.

Then again, I’m not going to stop you either.