Cold Fury

Harshing your mellow since 9/01

Wish Book!

Ahh, the good ol’ days.

Credit Suisse recently predicted that by 2022, some 25 percent of U.S. shopping malls will fold. And this may underestimate the trend. Ron Friedman, a retail specialist at the advisory firm Marcus, indicates that the situation could be “more in the 30 percent range. There are a lot of malls that know they’re in big trouble.” That trouble began with the ascendance of the Internet, marking the fourth great upheaval in U.S. retail.

The first came a century and a half ago, with the emergence of the first important catalog, originated by two mail-order salesmen, Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck. In a predominantly rural America, visiting a major city required extensive planning and expenditure. Sears Roebuck & Co. eliminated the need for trips to the dry-goods and hardware store—to almost any store, in fact, except the grocery. Citizens in farming towns leafed through the company’s two-inch-thick publication—often referred to as a “Wish Book.” They daydreamed about items that they couldn’t afford and clothing models whom they would never meet. Then they selected the items that they had to have, sent in their money orders, and waited for the truck to arrive. It would appear in a few weeks—warp speed in those days.

Humorist S. J. Perelman grew up on a Rhode Island chicken farm. As he examined one of his parents’ old catalogs, fantasies came to mind. “No. 24810, a model known as ‘Exposition,’ is thus described: ‘Perfectly shaped and a fine fitting corset, equal to any installed at 80 cents. Price, $0.40.’ Could any late Victorian wolf, encircling his inamorata’s hourglass waist, ever have dreamed that the treasures in his grasp were packaged in forty cents’ worth of whalebone and cambric?”

Menswear included the standard overalls and boots, and also offered items that might have attracted the YMCA, but appalled the ASPCA: “Our $23.95 Broadcloth Professional Suit. Just the suit for ministers, physicians, and professional men”; for flashier types, there was “No. 4442: Fur Overcoats. $8.90 buys a regular $15.00 Spotted Dog Overcoat. Made from carefully selected Dalmatian pelts.”

Dry goods and tools took up large portions of the catalog, but there was always room for items devoted to the reader’s physical condition. “However remote Sears Roebuck’s customers may have been from the main depot in Chicago,” Perelman notes, “their health was safeguarded by a vast array of patent medicines and proprietary articles. Twenty close-knit pages of elixirs, specifics, boluses, capsules, chemicals, tinctures, pills and granules undertook to combat practically any malaise on earth.” Typical is No. G-3059—Dr. Chaises Complexion Wafers: “Highly recommended by the celebrated Madame La Ferris of Paris and many others. They are unequalled for producing a clear complexion and a plump figure.” Should the figure get too plump, there was No. G—4200: “Obesity Powders. These powders are recommended for and are very successful in reducing the flesh of corpulent people. Follow the directions and do not look for immediate results.”

No, probably not.

I remember when I was a mere stripling making the annual after-Thanksgiving trip with my Aunt Evelyn to Sears to pick up the Christmas Wish Book. Pretty much our entire Christmas haul was gleaned from its pages; all us kids would spend countless hours on the living room floor going positively bug-eyed over the wondrous toy section at the back of the catalog. It had everything: the latest GI Joe gear, bicycles and gas-engined minibikes, walkie-talkie sets, telescopes, model airplanes and rockets, BB guns, you name it. We’d muster our finest penmanship to scribble highly organized Santa lists with page numbers and all other details, ordered from the must-have-can’t-live-without items at the top, down to the less critical stuff that you tacked onto the list with a shrug and a “hey, what can it hurt?”

Every year the Wish Book seemed to get fatter and more tantalizingly comprehensive; every year we fairly trembled with joyous anticipation through the endless days between Turkey Day and Christmas, with the Wish Book providing both focus and distraction. It truly was grand. Bitch about “commercialization” and “greed” and “crass consumer culture” if you like, but I never had so much fun in my life. Which is just one reason I find today’s news depressing:

Sears Holdings Corp., the 125-year-old retailer that became an icon for generations of American shoppers, filed for bankruptcy, saddled with billions of dollars of debt racked up as it struggled to adjust to the rapid shift toward online consumption.

The company, which employs 68,000 people, filed for Chapter 11 early Monday in White Plains, New York. Eddie Lampert, the hedge fund manager who propped up the retailer for years with lifelines and financial engineering, is stepping down immediately as chief executive officer. At the same time, Lampert’s ESL Investments Inc. is negotiating a financing deal while also discussing buying “a large portion of the company’s store base,” Sears said in a statement.

The financing would help ensure that much of Sears’ and Kmart’s stores are kept open through the crucial holiday season. Lenders and Lampert will in the meantime begin hashing out through the courts how much — if any — of the company will remain a going concern beyond that.

Of course nothing lasts forever, all good things come to an end, and the only constant is change. I like Amazon and use ’em all the time, which means I’m part of the problem, really. I get all that. It makes me sad anyway.


5 thoughts on “Wish Book!

  1. Mike, I’m with you. For me, the saddest part is that Sears COULD HAVE BEEN Amazon. They had the products. Name recognition. Warehouses. Distribution centers. Logistic underpinnings. It was all there. Yet, in those fateful years as the internet became grown-up, Sears was asleep at the switch. Amazon had to build from scratch all the stuff that Sears already had. But for a lack of imagination… and probably a lot of “we’ve always done it this way” thinking, Sears could have gone online early and been the 500 lb gorilla.

  2. Always loved the smell of those catalogs. It became indelibly linked with Christmas.

    And, uh, as one got older, the women’s underwear models became intriguing in addition to the toys, games, and sports stuff. Or so I hear, at any rate.

  3. My grandfather told me about the house his uncle built from a kit out of the Sears Home Catalog. The thing arrived by train and you had to transport it to the building site. The cost ran about $1000 back in the 20’s. Now that’s some serious catalog ordering.

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