Friday, February 12, 2010

Cataloging a Changing Way of Life

I just got a blast from the past.  Cleaning out some files, I came across an article I’d written nine years ago called “Catalog Come-ons, or How I Got into Mail Order Mischief,”  about my addiction to catalog shopping.  I’d never gotten it published but took a look again today to see if I could update it and recycle it somehow.  Not a chance, I quickly realized. Wow, nine years was like a lifetime ago.  First and foremost, catalogs? Really? All of my references were hopelessly dated in the face of today’s online shopping opportunities.  Second, I’m just not the consummate consumer I was back then.  A lot of water under the bridge financially, and radical reprioritization of my income (little realities like college tuition, and what unfortunately was a novel concept to me for years--savings).  Plus as I get older I’m more about simplifying and decluttering rather than acquiring.  Third, there were many references to my then husband. Fourth, they’re just not sustainable environmentally.

Still, there was a time... I used to be an inveterate shopper on foot, so of course I segued nicely when direct mail catalogs really took off in the boom years for boomer incomes. In the beginning, it was just catalogs for clothes and shoes (not that I ever bought shoes from a catalog--who can do that? Not this size 11 wide!).  Then, the catalog companies got a bead on me and the floodgates opened.  New, more exciting catalogs started coming my way.  Stuff.  Neat stuff.  Beautiful stuff.  Handy stuff.  Exquisite stuff.  Stuff I could really use for my kitchen/yard/living room/son's room/bathroom, stuff I never knew about but now I couldn't do without.  Stuff in just the right color, in just the right size, just the right height, just the right fabric--how did they know me so well?  (Ah, how naïve I was.)

Let's face it--catalogs were and are entertainment, not just convenience. I used to read the old Banana Republic catalog cover to cover. This was back in the day when Banana Republic was about safari and adventure wear, not what the young urbanite is wearing to work like it is today.  It wasn’t that I was planning a trip to Kenya and needed supplies, but because I was an armchair traveller, and it had that special aura to it of good travel literature.  The Vermont Country Store catalog has, well, everything you can think of, from tried and true skincare remedies to flannel nightgowns to discontinued candies you used to eat when you were a kid. 

Certain catalogs are fun to read because they’re written so cleverly.  I’ve more than once thought that writing copy for catalogs would be a blast.  (I was so jealous when Elaine on Seinfeld was writing for the J. Peterman catalog—which, by the way, I just Googled, and they’re still in business and the descriptions are still positively poetic! ) Other catalogs make their impact with stunning photography.  Still others, like the National Geographic Travel catalog, are about big dreams. As Anne Fadiman wrote in her book Ex Libris, “My that I never want the item, I want the associated fantasy.” 

I cruised catalogs for the one-of-a-kind (hey, never mind that they have 6,000 in the warehouse) items that suited my style. I laugh when I think of the crap I didn’t buy (most of the crap I did is long gone to tag sales and donations).  Flower pots with bread-baking kits in them.  (I don’t even bake!) I was also an easy touch for humor, hence the near-order of a t-shirt that read:   Baroque (adj.):  When you are out of Monet, and the address labels with the picture of two nuns, one asking the other, "So, what are you wearing tomorrow?" 

Coldwater Creek still gets me, I love their clothes, their service, the whole nine yards, but I’ve been meaning to call and cancel the few other clothing catalogs I still get.  Well, maybe I have to keep Soft Surroundings, too.  True to its name it’s full of rich textures, clothes you want to wear (snuggly cashmere sweaters, angora socks, embroidered caftans evoking Mediterranean nights), linens to sink into (floral quilts from Provence I just admire; an aqua bamboo blanket I did buy and is so soft and warm) and powders you want to brush gently across your cheek.  Everything is sensual, tactile. I love the beauty of even the descriptions of the colors, like the silk pillowcases in blush, celadon, bisque, lake or champagne and the silk velvet poet’s shirt in garnet, peacock, chocolate or azure. What can I say? I’m a color junkie. 

Mail order, whether catalogs or now websites, have taken some of the fun out of being a collector.  No longer are collectibles things you found here and there, surprises in dark corners of antique storesor on a vacation somewhere exotic.  Now if you collect foxes, lighthouses, teacups or piano-related items, they not only all have their own catalog, they’re likely to have ten websites.  After a while, the thrill is gone.

I have, of course, taken my waning shopping libido online. Although I will say, there’s one thing you can’t do with an image on a computer screen—take it to the mirror with you to be sure a particular color of a sweater pictured in the teeny tiny photo will go with your hair and complexion.  And flipping through a catalog is such a good complement to mindless TV watching when you just haven’t got enough brainpower to turn off the box and read a real book instead. 

I used to deal with the onslaught of frequent and numerous catalogs by pitching them directly into the trash can without so much as cracking them open--there, I just saved $45,677.95 plus shipping and handling!  Of course, eventually we all learned there was actually a way to stop all those catalogs coming except ones you specifically requested.  And now I have a fool-proof system for lingering catalog longing.  I go through the dwindling number I still get, circle favorites and carefully fold down the pages for items that catch my eye.  When I reach the last page, I go back through and carefully weigh the choices, unfolding the pages of some I decide I can’t afford or can live without. Then I put the catalog into a beautiful antique, woven Chinese wedding basket where it lives until several months later, when I open the basket up, pull all the accumulated catalogs out, and toss them in my recycling bin, without spending a penny. 

Much of my catalog and later online shopping was with gifts in mind, but I have also cut way back on excessive gifting with friends and family, as we’ve all realized we don’t need any more stuff and instead focus on shared time together, as well as donations to charitable organizations in lieu of holiday and birthday gifts.

Yes, once upon a time I could tramp through malls for hours, giddy with the phrase of the day, “shop til you drop.”  Well, drop I did—financially, that is, and finally realized that my endless consumerism was not compatible with living responsibly, nor was it feeding my hungry soul.  Now the malls no longer beckon and the catalogs have lost their siren’s seduction. I lost my lust for shopping.  It’s the end of an era. Now connecting to others and to the universe draws me in instead and creativity is a bigger come-on. Oh happy day!  


  1. The concept of sustainability -- and I don't mean just my bank account -- prompted me to sign up for to opt out of receiving so many catalogs. It's a "a free service that lets you decide what gets in your mailbox." I just wish I could find one that lets me receive fewer versions of the catalogs I still do receive. I also love Coldwater Creek but do I need a catalog every WEEK from them????

  2. I totally agree! Some of these catalogs I could do with one a year. It is very satisfying to get rid of the worst offenders. Coldwater Creek is restrained compared to a couple I just cut out of my life! Currently trying to do the same with my email subscriptions, a whole 'nuther project!

  3. Karen - I too did the catalog shopping, especially in months when I wasn't very mobile. When I moved to Maryland I discovered that most of the things that I lusted after were down the street, at Value Village, and at a much better price than before. So I got my Laura Ashley bedroom (dark green and periwinkle blue), a few Molas for my walls, brass lamps, and many other things that I enjoyed as long as I had the space. Now they all must be removed from storage. These days, if I cannot live without something, I buy it for a few bucks, and take it back when I am finished. Where else can you have a shopping spree for less than $20? Barbra L.