Goodbye, Vogue; Hello, Filson

As industry vet Don Libey reiterates in his article on prospecting this issue (page 29), catalogers don’t compete only against other direct marketers but against retailers as well. But we also have to remember that catalogs don’t compete only against other marketers, but against magazines too.

I was reminded of this after returning from a week’s vacation to stacks of magazines, stacks of newspapers, and stacks of catalogs. (There were stacks of bills too, but let’s not go there.) That evening, I piled the reading material upon my bed and faced a tough decision: What to read first?

Most of the catalogs couldn’t stand up to the blandishments of the Elle and Allure coverlines, nor of The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town.” But amid the welter of look-alike catalogs selling me-too apparel and home decor, a few books stood out.

The gorgeous front cover of Horchow Bath, for instance, makes the covers of Home and House Beautiful look more suitable for Tract Homes ‘R’ Us. Almost as stunning as the chest with mother-of-pearl inlays on the front is the mirrored vanity on the back. I pored over this catalog as closely as I did my shelter magazines.

The tag line of the Steve Spangler Science catalog is “Teaching People to be Amazing!” Having long desired to be amazing, I opened the book. The inside front cover features one of the most informative and most entertaining president’s letters I’ve ever read. The catalog sells kits, supplies, and geegaws to make learning about science fun to youngsters. The primary market is elementary-school teachers, but the witty copy, unusual and affordable products (Blob Timers! Growing Body Parts! Touchable Bubbles!), and the suggested activities inspired me to save the catalog for when it’s time to order holiday gifts.

Did you know that club soda can clean chrome? I didn’t, until I read the Early Autumn edition of the Cody Mercantile catalog of “country lifestyle products.” The club-soda tip was just one of several tidbits from customers sprinkled throughout the catalog. Seeing as I live just 15 miles outside of New York City, I’m hardly the catalog’s target demographic, but the copy persuaded me that I needed several of the products featured.

If I weren’t a fan of vintage black-and-white photography, I probably would have put the Filson Winter 2003 Source Book in the “save till I’m caught up with my back copies of Movieline’s Hollywood Life” pile. But the cover photo of several bundled-up men building a log cabin (in Alaska in 1901, according to the caption) led me to peek inside the catalog — and once I peeked, I had to read more. Filson sells heavy-duty apparel for serious outdoorsmen, such as the Famous Tin Cloth Packer Coat (“On horseback or afoot, when you’re fully exposed to the elements, this jacket will do the job…”). Amid the detailed product descriptions are loads of archival photos and the best customer testimonials ever (“I was attacked by an enraged bull” begins one letter, whose writer credits his survival to his Filson coat).

Forget articles about George Clooney’s Italian villa and whether cheating can be good for a marriage. I’d rather read about cow magnets in the Steve Spangler catalog or Klondike prospectors in the Filson catalog, thank you.

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