Our First Time


The name of the catalog escapes me — it was 20 years ago, after all, back when I was in college — but I’d mailed away for it after seeing a space ad in the back of Rolling Stone. The catalog sold vaguely counterculture-ish apparel, and I ordered the Subliminal Sex shirt. It had odd-looking flowers printed across the front, and the white spaces between them spelled the word “sex.” The message was so subliminal, I received nary a comment on the shirt, until the night my then-boyfriend showed up at my house following band practice, somewhat the worse for wear. After staggering into a wall but before passing out on the couch, he managed to say, “Hey, your shirt spells out ‘sex.’” Happily, my taste in clothes — and men — has improved since then.


I can’t remember the name of the catalog, a low-end jewelry book, but oddly, I do remember that it was based in Van Nuys, CA. I ordered from this company several times, since I was in love with its selection of cheap silver-and-crushed-turquoise jewelry. (Hey, it was the ’70s, and I was in middle school!) I would give my mother my hard-earned baby-sitting cash, she would write a check for me, and I would mail my order off to California and patiently wait the four to six weeks it took for the merchandise to arrive. When it did, the product was typically not quite as fabulous as it had appeared in the catalog, but I didn’t care. My cool new jewelry made me the envy of the other seventh-grade girls — even if it did turn my skin a funny color.


I had long avoided catalog shopping in an effort to protect my bottom line. But as a Catalag Age staffer, I recently decided it was my duty to make a purchase. I chose a set of cute snowman dishes on clearance at Eddie Bauer. It wasn’t the smoothest experience: First the order was botched, and then a few pieces arrived broken. But just as I was to be lost forever to the catalog market, Eddie Bauer’s service reps pulled through — they sent me free dishes, gave me a credit, and let me keep the dishes I already had. After this experience, I figured it was in my professional interest to sign up for any and every catalog. And although I’ve hidden my credit cards, I know it’s only a matter of time until I’m on your mailing list.


I have my wife to thank for my first catalog order — well, sort of. Back in April 1986, we were the guests of honor at a lovely engagement party — the same day as the final round of the Masters golf tournament. Because my hero at the time, Jack Nicklaus, had started the day far back on the leader board, I wasn’t even tempted to look at the TV. On my way home, however, I heard on the radio that Nicklaus had made a remarkable comeback to win his sixth Masters. I scrambled around the TV news shows that night for the highlights, but I was crushed that I had missed it. About five months later, however, I found the entire ’86 Masters on a video in the Austad’s golf catalog. And that was my first catalog purchase!


I was about 21 years old and itching to do some damage to my very first credit card. So I rifled through a co-worker’s copy of the summer ’94 J. Crew catalog and instantly fell in love with, well, just about everything. I used Post-It notes to flag many items, including shorts, T-shirts, bikinis, and cotton rollneck sweaters of all colors. But at the end of the day, my senses — and fears of credit debt — got the best of me, and I narrowed my choices down to one simple item: a little white cotton summer nightgown. Seven years later, I still have it. And it’s just as soft and comfortable as ever. In fact, when I unpack it from storage at the first sign of warm weather, I know that my favorite season has arrived.


Until about eight months ago, I was a catalog virgin. But after I bought a home last year, I realized I needed “homey” stuff — decorations, linens, wall hangings. Eddie Bauer’s fall 2000 Home catalog received the honor of filling my first catalog order. (It also helped that I had a gift certificate for the company!) The Eddie Bauer phone reps guided me through the entire process, patiently recalculating with each selection how much of the gift certificate I had left to spend. I finally settled on some towels and a wonderful chenille bathrobe that still makes me feel like Hugh Hefner the moment I cinch its drawstrings. The experience was quite enjoyable — but don’t expect to see my name on your list of hotline buyers.


I would start checking the mailbox religiously after Thanksgiving for the Sears Wish Book. And when it finally arrived, my younger brother, PJ, and I, along with our neighbor Tom, would leaf through the catalog, deliberating on which toys we were going to ask Santa for, and marking the items with pens. We meshed out a careful system to indicate our level of desire. Plain circles meant that we liked the toy; “I really want this” indicated a strong preference, and absolute must-have items would get an additional “really” or two…or three. When I asked for the toy kitchen set (the one with the plastic food items for the refrigerator), I marked it “I really, really, really want this” for emphasis, and I got it. I remain a dedicated catalog shopper…but strangely, my parents are not.


The first catalog I can remember buying from was Victoria’s Secret, about 10 years ago. I love their clothes — yes, the clothes! While I still occasionally place an order from the catalog, I buy much less frequently than I used to. I finally caught on to the fact that the clothes never look quite as good on me as I imagined they would. (Or maybe it’s that the outfits simply don’t look as good on me as they do on the models!) Also, putting on a pretty Victoria’s Secret sundress does not automatically transport me to the lovely beach where the model in the catalog is wearing the dress, as I hoped it would. Still, it is the one catalog I always at least glance through when I get it in the mail. A girl can dream, can’t she?