Wish books

Although it’s not a store I visited frequently, I felt a pang of regret when Sears filed for bankruptcy, and that pain worsens around the Christmas season.

It’s not that it wasn’t expected. The company had suffered a long and difficult decline. It’s tough for stores like these, Sears and The Bay, the department stores of my childhood, to stay alive in an on-line climate.

When I tried to explain the aura of Sears – definitely the Amazon of its day – to one of my kids, it didn’t seem like he was able to appreciate the gravity of the footprint it left on the lives of people in my generation. Kids today seem to be too young to appreciate the bricks-and-mortar stores that adults were so enamoured to, with the racks of clothes, the shelves of shoes, the displays of jewelry, and the rows of appliances. None of that sticks with them.

But I was going about it the wrong way. In order to make kids of this generation appreciate Sears, I had to tell them about the catalogs.

Every Sears catalog that arrived in the mailbox – whether it was the thick Spring/Summer or Fall/Winter issues, or the thinner sale catalogs – had everything and more within its covers. I have very clear memories of the arrival of these catalogs. I didn’t fight often with my sister, but if ever a tug-of-war was going to take place, it was going to be around the beginning of August when we both fought over who was going to pick out their school clothes from the catalog.

Because back then, that was the only fashion kids knew. We didn’t have the Internet and there was no Forever 21 or Hollister, so the latest fashion for girls in River Bourgeois was discovered via the Fall/Winter catalog from Sears. We always wanted all the cool outfits, but usually ended up with maybe one shirt and a pair of practical shoes.

The Christmas Wish Book was its own event. The day it arrived in the mail was a war to see who could get their hands on it first, so we could earmark the pages and mark our territory.

The front section was always my favourite. There were gifts of every variety categorized by price point, so some under $10 right up to some under $100, and every year I circled about $1,000 worth.

Once I leafed past the bedding and mattresses and picked myself out a new comforter set for my room, and then past the living room rugs and draperies, past the Craftsmen tools and the pages of Christmas fruitcakes and cheeses, I’d finally arrive at the musical instruments, which was the beginning of a wonderful journey of planning the acquisition of thousands of dollars of merchandise I would never own.

I didn’t spend too much time on the various sleds and other sports equipment, but I’d linger forever on the pages of board games, before hitting the dolls, Barbies, and even the army men. But nothing – nothing! – was as great as the magic kits. I wanted them all. I’m not sure why or how, but I had big plans to be an illusionist of some sort.

The Wish Book has been discontinued for a few years but my love of that glossy tome remains to this day, even as the mail-order business has become less about paper and more about Web sites. There’s something comforting and cozy, almost intimate, about relaxing on your couch with a hot mug of coffee and a catalog that you’ve just grabbed from your mailbox. I’ve been known to mentally redecorate my house and replenish my wardrobe in that exact pose.

Now is the time of year I actually look forward to unsolicited junk mail. Thumbing through these books and flyers, I get ideas for gifts, recipes, and even inspiration for what my Christmas dinner table might look like if I was a little more sophisticated an entertainer.

It turns out that my kids, those screen-loving digital creatures, actually love catalogs. They respond to them as though they’re presents that arrived in the mail, which was unexpected to me considering how much stimuli they’re exposed to.

For me, this proves that 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 stuff from the 70s and 80s, eventually you’ll be regarded as fashionably retro instead of ridiculously outdated.