The End of the `Wish Book'

WHEN Sears, Roebuck announced the closing of 113 stores, with a consequent loss of 50,000 jobs, the financial community experienced a tremor, as it had when General Motors and IBM scaled down. But when the news registered that the Sears catalog was being discontinued after 97 years, many Americans, whether customers or not, felt not only sadness about the vanishing jobs but a culture shock as well.

Has any document more graphically depicted the American Dream than those 1,500-page "wish books," as Sears catalogs came to be called? You pressed your nose into their pages as you would press your nose against a whole street of store windows. Nothing that the body needed or the heart longed for was excluded. By 1909 Sears was selling six models of its own automobile for around $395, to be followed by its own pre-cut house for less than $3,000.

Scholars could write a social history of the 20th century based on catalogs spread before them from 1896 to the present. As Americans left the farm for the city and the suburb, long johns gave way to designer clothes and cream separators to word processors. Along the way, the Sears catalog expanded its definition of goods to include the Encyclopedia Britannica. In one year alone it sold 55,000 sets.

In the end, this supermarket of all catalogs burst its seams. Competing against catalogs that sought a niche, the Sears catalog refused to give up its claim to all niches, from lawn mowers to attache cases, from backyard gyms to diamond rings. How could it truly be a "wish book" if it did not embrace every wish? Yet "something for everyone" no longer works as a marketing strategy.

While Sears persists as a scaled-down retail player competing on the malls of America, the catalog is also sure to live on, as legends of Americana do, quite possibly becoming a collector's item in somebody else's glossier, more narrowly targeted catalog.

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