Boys turned worldly turning the pages of the Sears catalog

MIKE LITTWIN

January 27, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

Let's be honest. When you were a young boy, and the Sears catalog came in the mail, you didn't sneak the big book into your room simply to peruse the new line of bikes.

That's what you told Mom you were doing. Of course, you also told Mom you were fascinated by pictures from the wonderful world of insect larvae in the new National Geographic. Somehow, looking back, I don't think Mom was actually that dumb.

Mom had her own uses for the catalog. Long ago, in the days before shopping networks and even, yes, before shopping malls, it was a magical compendium of wonders, many beyond the reader's imagining.

But we know what it was the young boy couldn't quite imagine, at least without the visual aids provided by Sears.

We're talking foundation garments (now lingerie, just as spaghetti is now pasta). That's where you turned, even before you went to find the baseball-cap section.

We're talking forbidden pictures of women in girdles. Women in brassieres. Yes, people actually said brassieres. Women in, well, undies. You couldn't even say the word. Heck, the way I remember it -- your eyes round in wonder, your palms gone cold in fear of unknown terrors -- you couldn't even speak.

We're talking a rite of passage that embraced generation after generation, in towns big and small, for boys big and small.

I'm not sure how you first learned about it. Maybe from an older brother. Maybe it was instinctive.

For many boys, it was a first, sometimes-guilt-inducing encounter with sex, the little three-letter word that you'd never heard tumble from the lips of an actual grown-up.

And now they tell us the big book will soon be gone -- that's the news from Sears. And no wonder. Its era has passed, and not just because there isn't as much demand as there used to be for mail-order jig saws.

From the business world, the experts have weighed in on the inevitability of this move. The Sears big book dates to 1896, in a time when a farmer might have had to travel hours on a tractor to buy a pair of overalls, or was it travel hours in a pair of overalls to buy a tractor. Same difference.

Today, the experts point out, when no one in America lives more than six minutes from the nearest mall, the book must compete with specialty catalogs and sold-only-on-TV products. As an example, Cher has never appeared in the Sears catalog.

But I see the end of the big book in slightly less prosaic terms. The death of the catalog stands for nothing less than the death of innocence.

And the murderer is, as you may have already guessed, MTV.

I'll explain. Today, by the time a kid is, say, 8 years old, he has already seen Madonna naked on MTV at least 500 times. He has seen Cher's backside nearly as often. He has seen boots, whips, chains and other similar forms of loving expression.

Some of this may confuse the young viewer, but it probably doesn't discourage him from trying to learn more.

Here's the time we live in: Thanks to remote control, even your preschooler can channel-surf between Big Bird on Sesame Street and David Lee Roth's wish-they-all-could-be California girls on MTV.

You think this kid is ever going to waste his time on the pantyhose page in the Sears catalog?

Besides, the catalog of choice today, in terms of lingerie, is Victoria's Secret. This is a catalog sent to your Mom. Your Mom. And, believe me, there are no secrets that can't be found in Victoria's Secret.

If that's not lying around the house, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue must be. Here's a magazine that parents typically give as Christmas presents to their young sons, who, it should be told, pray each night that the next Sports Illustrated is the one that's going to feature Cindy Crawford cavorting in the surf and in little else.

How does Sports Illustrated, a sports magazine after all, get away with producing an annual swimsuit issue?

Are you kidding? It's the biggest seller of the year.

Sex sells. Even stodgy old retail institutions understand that.

Which is why Sears, after dumping the big book, should come out with Sears Secrets.

They owe at least that much to future generations.

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