It doesn’t seem possible that Sears is disappearing from the American landscape. While it is still in business at the end of 2018, it may not be around much longer. It is a sad ending for the originator of the Wish Book.
Those of us who do most of our shopping online these days catch flak for it. We’re accused of undermining the American way of life in some way. The thing is, people have been shopping from their homes for more than a century without batting an eye.
There is little difference between shopping on the Internet and filling out a mail-order form in the back of a paper catalog. The Internet is simply a lot faster. You receive your merchandise in a couple days rather than in a week or so.
All the same, there was magic in the pages of Sears’ Wish Book. For example, toys don’t twinkle on a web page as they did on four-color printed glossy paper. And websites don’t have that distinctive smell associated with paper catalogs.
A kid could spend hours poring over the entire catalog, looking at clothing, drum sets, guitars, automotive parts, kitchen rugs and, of course, toys. When the Christmas catalog was officially renamed the Wish Book in 1968, it featured 225 essential pages of toys and 380 pages of nonessential gifts for adults.
I saw my first Barbie doll in the summer of 1962 while recuperating from a very welcome tonsillectomy in the old Clarion Hospital. The little girl in the bed beside mine received a Barbie as a get-well gift. I received a satisfactory book of Lennon Sisters paper dolls, but the other girl’s doll intrigued me.
I received my own knock-off Barbie for Christmas that year, to be followed by Midge and Ken dolls as birthday and random grandparent gifts. As with so many things in life, once you get your heart’s desire you want still more.
Life would be so much better if only I had Skipper, Barbie’s little sister, to complete my doll family. I spent a month or two perusing the Sears catalog, circling Skipper’s picture and even dog-earing the page. In a family of book lovers, creasing a page in a catalog was like defacing a copy of the Gettysburg Address.
Mom and Dad took my very broad hint, and Skipper sat under the Christmas tree that year. I never saw the entire ordering process, and I still half-believed in Santa Claus. I figured that he and my parents were in cahoots.
For children of many decades, the last few weeks before Christmas were an agony. Mysterious packages showed up on the doorstep. Intriguing big boxes had to be picked up at the old post office across the street from the Baptist Church.
For the most part, the little folks never saw what was inside the packages. However, I remember going to the post office with my mother when I was about four or five years old to retrieve a gigantic box. I don’t remember why, but my mother had to open it in my presence.
It was a set of toy dishes that I had been drooling over in the catalog for a couple months. They were to be one of my Christmas presents, but I forgot about them after the box was opened. I was surprised to see them again under the tree a few weeks later.
This is one of the cool things about kids. They have the attention spans of puppies.
“So, that’s where babies come from, huh? Now tell me how they make Popsicles.”
Wise parents and grandparents take advantage of this lack of focus to pull off a number stellar tricks. Actually, adults could have taught various spy agencies some nifty sleight-of-hand.
My brother’s three-speed bike, bought at the Western Auto in town, lived in a neighbor’s garage until Christmas morning one year. On a previous Christmas, he got a wagon that neither of us knew about until then. I don’t know who was happier, him or me.
My dad was the consummate trickster. Every daffy idea I come up with I owe to him.
He and Mom had taken me Christmas shopping one year, making sure that I saw them skulking down the aisle of a Kresge’s store carrying a disappointingly small cheap doll. I was sure that I’d been really naughty that year and pondered every little misdeed for more than a month.
That Christmas morning, the one on which my brother received his amazing wagon, seemed to be okay. I unwrapped that stinky little doll bought at Kresge’s, made the right cooing noises over it and then opened the rest of my presents.
Mom sent me out to the kitchen to get another plate of cookies, and I saw something out of the corner of my eye that stopped me in my tracks. There was a life-size doll tucked between the refrigerator and the wall beside it. And then there was the high-pitch squealing that only a five-year-old girl can emit.
I haven’t the faintest idea where all these goodies came from. You could still buy excellent gifts anywhere in town at the time, but kids just assumed that the Sears catalog was the source of most of them.
Even now, I wish there was still a Wish Book.
[Susan Kerr is a semi-retired freelance writer living in her hometown of New Bethlehem. Previously, she was the managing editor of a regional-interest magazine and a business journal in State College.]