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Bookselling in the 21st Century

Part XI: Insulated Niches, Catalogs

by Craig Stark

#141 22 February 2010

With so much talk about the digital revolution, it's easy to forget that there are some things that print books do much better than ebooks, and books that play into this will likely be at least somewhat insulated in the years ahead.

Take catalogs. When my father returned from WWII, he started working at Montgomery Ward and remained there for the rest of his working life. Every year he'd bring home four big Ward's catalogs, one for each season, also some specialty catalogs, and our favorite, the Christmas catalog. My two sisters and I would beg to see it first, of course, and in the interest of fair play, at some point my mother suggested we share it. Three kids sharing one book didn't work well, but two did, and out of this evolved a sort of semi-regular activity or game I engaged in with one of my sisters - sharing the catalog. We'd sit down on the couch, usually with one of the big catalogs - it didn't have to be a new one - start at page one, and turn every page in it until we reached the end. It didn't matter whatsoever that we weren't going to buy anything; nor did it matter that we were even interested in absolutely everything in it. It was just fun, and these times are among my favorite childhood memories.

When Sears Roebuck started titling their Christmas catalogs "Wish Book" in 1968, they captured the very essence of what these catalogs are - namely, books illustrating things we wish for. For many of us, in some ways it doesn't even matter if you get what you wish for; the wishing itself is pleasurable. And the point of it all.

When I reached adulthood, I still enjoyed browsing through catalogs just for the sake of doing so, but I noticed one curious change. When I was a kid, I'd wish for something that I actually wanted to have, but now that I was an adult, I noticed myself focusing more on things that I didn't so much wish to have as - well, there were things I wished I needed instead. It's a subtle but significant difference and explains to some extent why a person can enjoy leafing through a catalog of, say, taxidermy tools with utterly no intention of ever becoming a taxidermist but at the same time thinking, wow, wouldn't it be cool to actually need all of those things? That is, to be that so skilled in the art of taxidermy that serious and wildly specialized tools would be necessary to own? Maybe you need to be a guy for this particular example, but the principle applies for all: There's simply something riveting about the browsing experience.

Until you get online and try it. Let's face it; it just isn't the same. In some cases it isn't even fun. Example: I don't know about you, but hitting the backspace button on my keyboard is something I've never liked doing. I don't know what it is exactly - maybe a lost sense of place. When you're turning the pages of a print catalog and want to flip back at something, on the other hand, all of the pages are in your hands, and there's an unbroken sense of place, or completeness.

And this is just one thing I don't like about it.

Funny thing about Sears. In 1993 they stopped publishing their big-book catalogs, and the Wish Book was systematically reduced in size until, by 2005, it was published as a 2 " x 2 " "Little Big Wish Book" and distributed in, among other unlikely settings, Sears Auto Centers. Sears had clearly reached the conclusion that print catalogs were on the way out. Trouble was, the public hadn't, and responding to numerous protests from customers, Sears resumed publishing the Wish Book in 2007, albeit with about 1/3 the number of pages.

Anyway, for these reasons and more, I have a strong hunch that print catalogs will continue to be in demand for the foreseeable future. Like anything else, it's important to have a working knowledge of what to buy and what to pass on. Issues #56, #57 and #58 of the Gold Edition address this niche in detail. Click here to purchase.

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