A top education in quality and taste doesn't have to cost a cent, says Stanley Marcus, the man who has written "the" book on the subject.

Rock Creek Park in the fall, the Phillips Collection, the Freer and National Gallery and the Textile Museun -- "I never come to Washington without stopping there" -- and quality merchandise departments at Washington's best stores are great training grounds, says Marcus.

"This city is surfeited with visual riches."

Marcus, chairman emeritus of Neiman-Marcus, believes that stores have forfeited their crucial role of education, but says that men and women interested in quality should simply seek out the best in every store and examine workmanship and design, even if prices are far beyond what they can afford.

"The sotres may not like it much," concedes Marcus with a wry smile, "but you should do it just the same." In the long run, he says, the stores will benefit from better educated customers. "The eye is educable. Good taste is not an inherited characteristic."

Quality, says Marcus, who is in town to autograph his new book, "Quest for the Best," is not confined to high price.

:"You should buy the best of what you can afford, not the poorest of what you can't," he says, suggesting that the purchase of the best beaver coat beats buying the poorest mink at the same price. "From the best quality you will get the most satisfaction, the longest wear and the enjoyment of knowing it is the best without having to apologize for it."

And, as he says in his book, there's always snob appeal -- for those to whom that matters -- in owning the best of anything.

Marcus, who is no longer Minding the Store (his first book), says that while big stores may have improved mass taste by giving the public free exposure to a wide range of good items, he chastizes those same stores for offering items that are less than the best.

Some items advertised in catalogues, he points out, may be chosen simply because the manufacturer has offered to help pay for the ads (or catalogue). And some items may land on a shelf with the help of subtle bribery, such as a gift to the buyer.

Marcus prefers shopping at small specialty stores like I. Magnin, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman's, of course, but points out that those stores are now owned by major conglomerates and thus more apt to have management too far removed from the merchandise and the customer. He cites the London-based retail chain Marks and Spencer as the store making the most serious effort to maintain quality control.

Whatever, here are some of Marcus' suggestions for sorting out the best:

Always compare similar items of different prices for workmanship, fit and fabric. Make sure, for example, that seams are finished rather than pinked, that pockets are appropriately deep.

Always check color and fabric by the light of day.

When buying rugs, get on the floor and check the rug both front and back. Compare rugs to see which has more knots (more is better) and the best quality of fringe (also a sign of good workmanship).

Remember designer labels are no guarantee of quality, since labels are often spun off onto items that do not meet the same critical tests of the designer's original line.

Nurture the critical eye with visits to museums and to top speciality stores. Also train the eye by going on house tours and by reading trade journals such as Women's Wear Daily.

Marcus' own "best things list" includes: automatic watches (not digitals), Kobe beef, Levis, Sara Lee pound cake, Montecristo cigars, Bassetts Irish-coffee ice cream, Oxxford suits, the Water Pik, The New Yorker magazine, pecan rice, Saul Steinberg, the Concorde, Bang and Olufsen hi-fi equipment, Texas pink grapefruit, Evian water, Galanos dresses, the "MacNeil/Lehrer Report" and New England fall foliage.

His list of "less than the best" is shorter and includes: hotel art boutiques, bourbon, imitation furs, instant coffee, seven-day luxury cruises, retail advertising, frilled tuxedo shirts and teased hair.