Politics & Policy

Fridays With Florence

Welcome to the MisanMall.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Besides a good deadbolt lock, what could be a better friend to a misanthrope than…a catalogue?! Oh brave new shopping–sans stores, store greeters, food courts, parking lots, people! It’s enough to make a curmudgeon…smile! Herewith is Florence King’s June 1, 1998 Ode to Sears, Roebuck et al. You will enjoy this Misanthrope’s Corner blast from the past immensely.

Speaking of shopping, you’ll find this column, and the hundreds of others of Miss King’s delightful back-page oeuvre for National Review, lovingly collected in STET, Damnit, The Misanthrope’s Corner, 1991 to 2002, which is available only from NR, and which can be order securely here. Please order your copy (it will make for great summer reading!)…

At last I’m running with the herd and swimming with the tide and being a good little conformist. Americans, once gregarious and other-directed, are crawling into their shells and turning into shut-ins. In fact, they’re turning into me.

#ad#The gated community is edging out open-hearth suburbia, and gates are only the beginning: there is talk of moats and drawbridges. Children once thought to need the give-and-take of classroom and playground to keep them from growing up warped are being home-schooled, never mind their social adjustment. And people who used to feel sorry for writers because we have to sit alone in a room all day are now moving heaven and earth to become self-employed so they can sit alone in a room all day.

This is glorious-new-dawn stuff, but what really makes me feel like a pioneer is the soaring popularity of catalogue shopping. According to a spokeswoman for the Direct Marketing Association, a majority of Americans now do some or most of their shopping from home, and the numbers are rising. The trend is attributed to gridlock traffic and time constraints on two-career couples and single parents, but the spokeswoman alluded gingerly to another reason: “people’s growing disdain of crowded places.”

Welcome to MisanMall. No spaced-out teenagers, no music, no Official Greeters, no no smoking signs, no endless war-refugee hiking, no parking-lot kidnappings, no bomb scares, no “disgruntled employee” of the food court brandishing an AK-47 and ordering everybody into the icebox just as you’re sitting down to lunch. It’s just you and your thumb and your own private dreamland, the way it was when you were a child poring over the most famous catalogue of all.

Marketing analysts ignore it but I think one reason for the rise in home shopping is the Sears, Roebuck catalogue phase that children used to go through. It was like the dinosaur phase: every kid got hooked. I discovered the Scars catalogue at age six when we visited rural relatives. I spent the whole visit thumbing through it, fascinated not only by the bicycles and BB-guns but by merchandise I had no use for, such as baling wire and manure spreaders. I was in the throes of that universal childish delight in treasure hunts that Sears satisfied with one huge book.

Afterward I asked Granny if we could shop from it but she said, “We don’t have to, we can go downtown.” That was the trouble. Whenever she made me try something on in a store the saleswomen gathered round and gushed, “Isn’t she just the sweetest little thing you ever did see?” It’s terrible to be that misunderstood so I associated catalogues with succor at an early age.

I’ve been catalogue-shopping for a decade now and I love it. My first purchase was a $600 dual-floppy Sharp laptop from the Damark catalogue. Nothing has ever gone wrong with it and it has the best keyboard of any computer, laptop or desktop, I’ve ever owned. From the same source I also bought both of my fax machines, and nothing has ever gone wrong with them either. Thanks to the Damark and Lyben catalogues I never have to talk to smart-aleck techies.

Catalogue-shopping has even made me a better cook. Stores don’t deliver anymore so if you buy an imported cast-iron Le Creuset pot you have to lug it out to the car and then up the stairs. The temptation to make do with your old cheap pot is great, but if you buy an expensive Le Creuset from a catalogue, UPS does the lugging and you end up with better coq au vin.

Good kitchen knives also make all the difference. Not even Vulcan could snap the blade of my $75 German carver, but I never would have learned as much about knives standing on my feet in a store as I did reading a detailed and attractively presented catalogue over breakfast. When the knife arrived I also had the time and energy to enjoy the brochure, learning how to say “Please don’t use the knife to cut bones” in five languages. My favorite is: “Bitte verwenden Sie das Messer nicht zum Hacken von Knochen!” That’s really telling ‘em. I’m going to bellow it at the top of my lungs if I ever see another airhead salesperson in the flesh.

DID I just hear you grumble that once you start buying from catalogues you get bombarded with more catalogues? You’re right. It’s called “niche marketing” and I got my first taste of it when I sent for the gel-filled insoles. One foot product was all it took; now I get catalogues for crutches and wheelchairs. After I bought the moist heating pad I started getting neckbrace and traction catalogues, but my most memorable experience was landing in the niche from whose bourne no traveler returns.

It happened when I discovered a mail-order garment I’ve never seen in any store: they’re 100 per cent white cotton, with legs extending three inches down the thigh. After misspending my youth in seductive lingerie the comfort is indescribable. You’ve had paper cuts on your finger? Well, I used to get lace cuts not on my finger, and now I’m being punished for my sins with thunderbolts of memento mori: I had no sooner ordered three dozen pairs of comfies than I was inundated with catalogues for liver-spot cream, bladder-control pills, write-your-own-will kits, and 911 neck alarms.

I welcome niche marketing because in my business you can’t have too many catalogues. A foremost rule of writing, now largely ignored, is never call any object a “thing”: you must name it. While reading one of the landscaping catalogues that started arriving after I bought the outdoor thermometer, I learned the name for a solution to a problem I don’t have. You know how rain gushes out of the drainpipe and keeps hitting the same place beside the house until it makes a hole in the ground and water seeps into the cellar? To prevent this you buy a vinyl sleeve or polyethylene tube called a “downspout diverter.” Why do I need to know this? I’ll never buy a house but I do write about Bill Clinton, and something tells me it has the makings of an apt metaphor.

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