Book Fair was a big deal in elemetary school. It was the first time we were allowed to order anything from a catalog. The catalog was more like a long newsletter, glossy colored pages marked off into squares highlighting all our favorite characters. It sold non-books, too, mostly Garfield
bookmarks with those bright colored yarn tassles, or scratch 'n sniff stickers
. It would be painful weeks before our orders would arrive, usually wrapped in brown paper with our name written on the outside in bold magic marker
, or if we were allowed to order a lot, they would come in a sealed cardboard box. At that age, anything that came in a box in the mail addressed to you was something special
As I got older, our house would often get those corny catalogs for things I didn't think anyone really bought: monogrammed felt toothpick holders, dribble glasses, full gorilla costumes complete with rubber masks. The pictures were always animated or else of real people in stupid facial contortions feigning true delight as some member of the family sat on a whoopie cushion in the next room.
Then there came the fundraiser catalogs. This would be the next time I would order from a catalog. My school sent me home with a Christmas themed catalog full of ceramic bears and ridiculously overpriced wrapping paper. My mother ended up being my sole customer that year, as I was too shy to ask anyone else and had no friends or neighbors who would likely contribute. Even though she bought the stuff, I was the one eagerly waiting for the day after school when our purchases would be given out. The pictures were so misleading. Everything looked so cheap and small.
When I couldn't have the things that kids usually want, I would dream through catalogs, flipping through bedroom scenes showing matching sheet and comforter sets and how the entire room in the picture had a theme. Even now, when I am stuck somewhere and left with catalogs as my only reading material, I leaf through them and think yes that would go nicely with that skirt on page 12, and look here, this is the exact same color and so on.
Some of the funniest catalogs I have perused are the ones on flights, the sort of Sharper Image meets L.L. Bean. Even still, in that intimidating environment of cramped seating and a lovely view of the wing, I could see how cufflinks shaped just like little martinis, with teeny glass "olives" and all, might not be so bad.
Over the last few years, I've been the designated person to order office supplies for whatever company I am working for at the time. I have to say, I am one of those geeks who drools over Back To School flyers, even though I haven't been in a classroom in years. Flipping through this kind of catalog, however, is usually just depressing. All this ergonomic furniture with little diagrams showing how many hours a day it's deemed comfortable to sit in. Those posters airbrushed nature scenes with uplifting office jargon written below, or an entire dest set made of ostrich leather. It tells me we spend too much time in offices, and that there's a lot of companies making a lot of money catering to our cog asses.
Ordering from catalogs used to be just silly daydreaming. The pictures seem to be getting smaller and the prices higher, and my life seems to be fading into the margins.