Inspiration, Titillation, Transportation, Textbook

January 31, 1993|By KAROL V. MENZIE

It sat in the bookcase in the living room, between Thomas B. Costain and the Bible -- part thesaurus, part encyclopedia -- plus problem-solver, inspiration, titillation, transportation, textbook and companion. It was the stuff that dreams are made of.

The Sears catalog. When I was a child growing up in Kansas

City, Mo., and Louisville, Ky., it was as familiar as my cousins' faces. It was, in fact, a member of the family; beloved, trusted, consulted regularly. I can still remember the way the pages smelled (faintly medicinal) and how they felt (like slick tissue paper).

Soon all I'll have is the memory, for my friend the general merchandize catalog, the book whose heft and presence were a testimony to capitalism, is being discontinued. The current spring edition is the end, the company announced a few days ago. The "big book" that began in North Redwood, Minn., before the turn of the century as a series of flyers and grew to several thousand items and more than 14 million copies, has been losing more than $135 million a year in the last three years, they say.

It's hard for me to imagine a world without that catalog. My father used it to order specialty tools not available in the Sears store in St. Matthews, Ky. My mother used it to order wardrobe and household staples in quantity. I used it for everything. I could pore for hours over the fashions, picking out the perfect Easter dress or finding just the right high-style outfit to copy for a paper doll. My sister and I studied the toys for weeks, preparing our Christmas lists. I picked out canopy beds and dainty linens for imaginary bedrooms, and pondered dish and silverware patterns something young girls were more encouraged to do in those days. I studied the fabrics -- colorfully portrayed in fan shapes -- for pure pleasure.

The catalog had everything. Clothes and clothespins, tractor tires and toy tractors, ukuleles and union suits, bunk beds and blinds, ceiling fans and floor coverings, birdcages and binoculars, Girl Scout uniforms and gas furnaces, shutters and shoes, chain saws and chaise lounges, bunk beds and puppy cages, gazebos and gun cabinets, hammocks and hand tools, and kitchen sink after kitchen sink.

And all those pictures of women modeling underwear -- well. It was an eye-opening lesson in anatomy and dishabille that, 40 years ago, before popular culture made disrobing de rigeur, few of us could get anywhere else.

For my family, and for all the rest of us living far from the bright lights of a big city, the big Sears catalog, delivered three times a year by mail, was our link to a larger world. It brought the news from the realms of fashion and technology, and it put everything in reach. When the catalog began, in 1896, it was often the only link for people in rural areas; they could order plows and household gadgets and even entire houses right down to the nails, and the goods would be delivered by mail or rail. My mother, who grew up with five siblings in the tiny town of Iola, Kansas, recalls, "when the Sears catalog came, that was a big day.Everybody would be down on the floor, looking at the pictures, 'Oh, I want this, can I have this?' "

Whatever the times, though, the catalog has reflected them, a vast compendium of consumerism, an emporium for desirable objects great and small. These days the catalog carries computers and Nintendo games, camcorders and tailgate nets, ski-machine exercisers and in-line skates. You can call toll-free 24 hours a day and charge your purchase on Sears, Discover, MasterCard or Visa.

I still keep my Sears catalog on a convenient shelf. But it's got plenty of company there -- Spiegel, Land's End, L.L. Bean, Gardener's Eden, Ballard Design, Crate and Barrel.

Sears' problem is not that the catalog shopping era has passed, but that it has come. Merchandisers have all learned what former railway agent Richard Sears knew a hundred years ago when he sent out his flyers full of jewelry and watches: Convenience matters.

But today's mail-order sellers pick a niche and fire their flyers straight into the mailboxes of the most likely buyers. Specialty catalogs are cheaper to print and cheaper to mail than 1,600-page behemoths -- and they're easier to read. Audiences targeted by interest are more likely to buy.

And the time when every family needed a department store at their fingertips has gone. We can all go to the mall. These days, hardly anyone is out of touch.

Karol Menzie is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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