A tale of two stores for you this morning -- one of which handled a problem the generous way, the other of which hid behind a stone wall.

The beneficiary of the generous handling was Joyce Lipman of Potomac. Back in January, she bought a hand vacuum cleaner from the Evans Distributors and Jewelers store in Rockville. The machine was made by Douglas & Company, a manufacturer in Minnesota, which sweetened the pot by offering a $5 rebate for each machine it sold. Naturally, Joyce took advantage.

But a few days after she had deposited Douglas' check, Joyce got bad news from her bank. Not only was Douglas' check made of rubber, but Joyce owed the bank a $2 bouncing fee, too.

In between damnations and imprecations, Joyce called the office manager at Evans, John D. Rankin.

"We contacted the Douglas company to find out what happened," John said later. "When the rebate checks were printed, the computer skipped a number in the bank account number. Therefore, the checks were stamped, 'Invalid Account Number.' "

Douglas officials told John they'd be glad to pay Joyce's $2 fee, and send her a valid check for $5. All she had to do was send them a sales receipt.

That wasn't quite good enough for John Rankin. John arranged to give Joyce her $7 immediately, rather than make her wait for all the paperwork to clear in Minnesota.

"In situations like this," said John, "we give the customer a rebate and argue with the manufacturer later."

If only every company were so committed to putting the customer first.

Unfortunately, Sears Roebuck doesn't belong to that club. Or maybe its membership has temporarily expired. In any event, Sears hardly walked an extra mile in the case of Donna Poole of Gaithersburg.

Last fall, Donna had just bought her first home. So her mother went to Sears and bought her daughter a glass and brass fireplace screen as a housewarming present. The price: $169.

Ten days later, Donna happened to be leafing through the paper when she saw a Sears ad. The same screen was on sale for $149.99.

Donna told her mother, who immediately called Sears. Sorry, said a clerk. What you paid is what you paid.

Donna's mother then spoke to the manager. He said that he'd give her the $149.99 price -- if she dismantled the screen and brought it back to the store. Of course, dismantling the screen would have taken half a day, so that wasn't much of a favor. Not to mention how difficult the screen would have been to carry for a woman who's 71 years old and weighs 115 pounds.

"What if this was a dishwasher?" asks Donna. "Would she be expected to bring it in also?"

Mary Strahlendorf, a spokeswoman for the Eastern Region of Sears, said that, "Literally, a sale price is just that -- for a period of time."

Sears often makes adjustments "to maintain good will," Mary said. But "regarding the individual case with the fire screen, an adjustment was not available because that was the sale price at the time of purchase."

Compare, please, with the vacuum cleaner story. In that saga, Evans said, "Gee, what tough luck." Here, all Sears could say was, "Tough."