News of Sears, Roebuck and Co. declaring bankruptcy triggered a nationwide flood of memories for baby boomers, especially those of us who grew up in small towns, whether surrounded by the Pacific Ocean or Midwest prairies.
Here on Maui in the 1960s, we kids knew that our island lifestyle was a world apart from the middle America we saw on television. We were also a week behind, as all network TV shows were taped and sent to Hawaii in those pre-satellite-broadcast days. But the Sears catalog was the great equalizer. Through the magic of mail order, we could be as cool and fashion-savvy as Gidget — at least, in our daydreams.
I loved the summer ritual of picking out back-to-school clothes from the giant catalog. I’d carefully pore over the pages daily, whittling down my choices with each pass, until Mom and I finally agreed on a couple of outfits to order. They didn’t always meet my expectations; often, the dresses didn’t look the same on me as they did on the freckle-faced models. But some of my favorite clothes came from those pages: my white Nehru jacket, red bell-bottom pants, and my first pair of go-go boots — white patent leather, of course.
Considering that everyone ordered from Sears, it’s surprising how seldom we’d run into someone wearing an identical outfit. One incident stands out in my memory, though. At our year-end 8th-grade banquet, one girl showed up in a dainty, baby blue mini-dress with a sheer pleated overlay and a satin ribbon at the neckline. I had the same garment at home, and I was shocked –and a little envious — that her parents let her wear a negligee to a school function. It did look very pretty on her, and if anyone else recognized it from the sleepwear pages, they didn’t mention it.
Weeks after placing our order, we’d claim our merchandise at the Sears store in the Kahului Shopping Center. It wasn’t a store in the usual sense, more like a pickup counter, but sometimes they’d offer items that had been unclaimed or rejected by the folks who ordered them.
I was 6 or 7 years old when my aunt took me to a real Sears store in Honolulu, at Ala Moana Shopping Center. Until then, I’d always thought of Sears as a gigantic factory and warehouse somewhere on the Mainland, where clothing and tools and toys were made, like a year-round Santa’s workshop. That notion probably stemmed from my belief that the Christmas Wish Book was a collaboration between Sears and Santa Claus. How else would he have known to bring me the very items I’d circled in the Wish Book?
According to the Sears website archives, the general catalog, the iconic “Big Book,” was retired in 1993, a century after Richard Sears published his first “Book of Bargains: A Money Saver for Everyone.” The 1894 catalog proclaimed Sears, Roebuck and Co. to be the “Cheapest Supply House on Earth,” offering saddles and sewing machines, bicycles and baby carriages, musical instruments, sporting goods, even firearms.
Years ago, I bought a reproduction of an 1897 Sears catalog that advertised all of the above mentioned items and more, including opium and cocaine. I wish I hadn’t lost it, not just for nostalgic reasons, but because it’s now worth a bit more than the $2 I paid at the Borders bargain bin. A brief online search brought up used copies for $12 to $25; a new one may be purchased for $75. And those are just reproductions. An original Sears Wish Book from the 1960s now sells for as much as $200 on collector websites.
If only we’d saved those old catalogs instead of recycling them into craft projects (remember folding each page down to make a tabletop Christmas tree?). I suppose, though, even if we’d had an idea of its eventual worth, my grandmother would still have kept the Big Book in our backyard outhouse. Value is subjective and ever-changing.
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.