When I was a kid, autumn meant many things; it meant going back to school, football season would start up again, blankets and comforters would return to beds, and Halloween was around the corner. But it also meant something else, something that heralded the beginning of the Christmas season.
Autumn was when the Sears Wish Book would arrive. When that catalog arrived, Christmas planning could begin in earnest.
For those of you who don’t remember, or if you were born a bit too late, Sears would ship out a huge catalog every autumn. It was filled to the brim with home decor, clothing, books, and best of all, toys. Oh Primus, the toys. That alone made the Wish Book a must read.
To a kid like me, stuck out in the boonies with no nearby Toys R Us, this was like staring into the window of an all-you-can-eat restaurant. Name the toy and it was probably in that book: Transformers, GI Joe, Thundercats, My Little Pony, Jem, Cabbage Patch Kids, they were all in there. Usually, the pages were simply splashed with shots of the toys that were available. Other times, there were kids playing with the action figures and dolls in question. In either case, you felt envious when you perused those pages.
The book had an order form that your parents could use to make purchases from Sears. This was long before the days of eBay and Amazon; you had to send your payment through the US postal office and hope to hell that they didn’t lose anything, then wait anywhere from four to twelve(!) weeks to finally get your stuff. You also had to worry about what might happen if your order got massively effed up in the fulfillment department. Trying to fix these things took a helluva lot more than a couple of clicks in a browser tab. It also took a lot longer.
Of course, as a child, you weren’t allowed to touch that form; mostly because your parents would end up with a bill that would cost them more than the mortgage on your house and you’d be grounded until you were at least 87 years old. That’s if you were lucky and your parents let you live.
If you’re a child of the ’80s, you know that this is not a joke.
Now, Sears supposedly sent the Wish Book out in August or September, but I seem to remember getting it in the early days of October. This was when the weather was just turning crisp and cool in the southern portion of the United States and we were actually getting a little bit of color on the trees. Autumn in the South came gradually, a lot later than it did in the more northern areas. But seeing the Sears Wish Book in the mail was a sure sign that fall had arrived.
I spent a lot of hours looking in those catalogs. There were a lot of cool, fall evenings where I sat on the couch, the television muttering in the background as I stared longingly at the shots of Transformers, wishing I had the money to buy just one or two of them. My allowance was twenty five cents a week when I was eight years old; the cost of living increase I got when I turned twelve was five dollars a week. Good luck trying to buy anything–other than the occasional candy bar–with a bunch of quarters. Eventually, that gave way to parental pressure to go out and “get a job” when I officially entered my teens.
I knew it was pointless to circle anything in that book. The chances of me getting it was pretty low. That still didn’t stop me from dreaming, however.
By the time I graduated high school, the Wish Book was on the fast track to becoming a thing of a bygone era. There weren’t any physical copies mailed out in the US in 1993. By that time, I had other things on my mind; Christmas wasn’t just about what I wanted. I had other people in my life; putting together a list meant getting things for others, not necessarily what I alone wanted.
That wasn’t a bad thing. I actually enjoyed buying gifts for my friends. Once I started working in retail, that did change. Not for the better, I might add. Wal-Mart will do that to you.
If you’re feeling mildly nostalgic about all this, or you just happen to be curious, you can head over to Wishbook Web and take a look around. They even have catalogs you can browse, if you are so inclined. The only thing that this lacks is that trademark paper scent. If someone can find a way of reproducing that, then the experience will be perfect.
Before you ask: yes, I would love to get my hands on that Transformers sleeping bag. For reasons. Same with the play tent. And don’t even get me started on that Transformers train set. Ah, to have enough cash and access to the TARDIS…