I can’t remember the last time I stepped into a Sears store, but I felt a small pang of regret when the retailer recently filed for bankruptcy. Not that it wasn’t expected. The company had suffered a long and painful decline, its last gasps chronicled in embarrassing detail on both newspaper pages and TV business programs.
When I tried to explain the aura of Sears — the Amazon of its day — to one of my millennial kids who has never set foot in one of its department stores, I realized I was going about it in the wrong way. It wasn’t the bricks-and-mortar sites that had so fascinated me, nor was it the racks of clothes, the shelves of shoes, the displays of jewelry, the rows of appliances. No, none of that.
What I had loved best about Sears was its catalog, a thick tome that had everything (and more) within its covers. Who knew there was so much to buy? Who knew people needed or wanted such a variety of items?
I have a clear memory of paging through what was appropriately named “The Big Book” first as a kid, then as a teenager, awed by the Craftsmen tools, Kenmore gadgets, living room rugs, floral wallpaper — pretty much everything you would ever purchase. The best catalog was the annual Wish Book, which I zealously marked in hopes that Santa Claus (aka my cash-strapped refugee family) would leave one or two selected items under the Christmas tree for me.
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Of course it wasn’t just Sears that landed in mailboxes, angling for our dollars and dreams. There was the Spiegel catalog, the Montgomery Ward, the Radio Shack, the Luria’s and, for a nanosecond, the Tupperware and Avon, though the last two might have been dropped there by family friends selling those products. While the merchants obviously intended these catalogs as marketing, for me they were guilty entertainment.
The Sears catalog was discontinued when I was an adult with children of my own, but my love of that fat, glossy pictorial remains to this day, even as the mail-order business has become less about paper and more about websites. There’s something comforting and cozy, almost intimate, about relaxing on your sofa with a hot mug of coffee and a catalog that you’ve just plucked from your mailbox. I’ve been known to waste more than a few minutes in exactly that pose, with only my wildest fantasies — to redecorate my house, to replenish my wardrobe, to vacation in an exotic locale — for company.
I’m all too happy to report that last month’s political mailers, most of them negative, most of them insulting, are slowly being supplanted by holiday catalogs. Now is the time of year I actually look forward to unsolicited junk. Thumbing through these books, I get ideas for gifts as well as inspiration for what my Thanksgiving and Christmas table might look like if I would only put in more effort into entertaining the unruly throngs of relatives.
Many of these catalogs arrive year round and are, strangely enough, addressed to my sons. For example, I receive mailers from Bonobos, a hot e-commerce retailer of menswear that one of them favors. I found this kind of old-fashioned marketing odd, since Bonobos, which skews young, was initially founded as an online retailer exclusively with only a smattering of physical stores added later.
Turns out, though, that millennials love catalogs. Yes, those screen-loving digital natives actually interact with this outdated form of communication more than other generations, according to studies from the Data & Marketing Association. Apparently it has something to do with the belief that a published product carries more weight and imbues the merchant with consequence.
For me, this proves, in a roundabout way, a theory I’ve long espoused: If you wait long enough, if you’re patient enough, everything old becomes new again. Or, at the very least, if you manage to hold on to tried-and-true habits — print books, morning newspapers, landline phones — eventually you will be regarded as fashionably retro instead of ridiculously outmoded.