The New Nostalgia… Many Happy Returns

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An anthropologist studying the reading habits of Americans at the turn of the late, unlamented decade would find some revealing contrasts. On the one hand he would note the smashing success of Portnoy’s Complaint —with more than 600,000 hardcover copies sold as of the end of 1969—and dozens of other fast-selling titillations. On the other, quite opposite, hand he would find that Americans by the hundreds of thousands were also reading nostalgia—volume after volume of unabashed, hard-core nostalgia.

Of course books that appeal to our affectionate memories have always been around, but the rush of them, and the numbers sold, have been quite phenomenal in the last year or two.

The current epidemic probably started with the publication in 1968 of a facsimile edition of the 1897 Sears Roebuck catalogue, a venture that a smart young publishing firm, Chelsea House, launched in a modest fashion. The idea was suggested by their advisory editor, Fred L. Israel, who also teaches history at City College in New York. Israel decided to assign the Sears Roebuck catalogue to his students to illustrate points in his lectures about American living styles at the end of the nineteenth century. Finding the catalogues very hard to come by, he guessed that a larger audience than his students might respond to the delights of the one elusive early catalogue he managed to locate. Chelsea House, a small company that distributes its books through larger publishers, took the idea around to six firms—all of which yawned politely—before finding one, Random House, that agreed to distribute the book.

Chelsea House printed only five thousand copies at first. “We didn’t even put a dust jacket on it,” Harold Steinberg, the president of Chelsea House, said. “We thought its sale would be entirely to libraries.” At last count the sale of the book, at $14.95, has exceeded 140,000 copies, and it is still selling briskly—to its publisher’s unutterable delight. Other publishers have hurried into print with the 1902, 1903, 1908, and 1927 Sears catalogues; the 1902 number has sold over 400,000 copies in hard-cover and paperback form for $6.95 and $3.95, respectively. Perhaps the finest feat of salesmanship in the whole venture was selling the book back to Sears Roebuck itself. The mail-order store bought ten thousand copies from Chelsea House as gifts and has also been selling the facsimile of its 1897 catalogue ($14.47) through its new catalogue (free to loyal customers).

The publishing formula for nourishing our appetite for nostalgia varies, but one of the most successful—witness the 1897 Sears catalogue—is to find an old yet familiar item, print a facsimile of it, embellish it with new front matter, package it handsomely, and sell it for a large sum. This procedure has certain obvious advantages for the publisher. The volume chosen is often old enough for any copyright to have expired, editorial costs are negligible, and the illustrations are built in.

In selling books for the nostalgia market, Steinberg said that Chelsea House is searching for “things that strike us as having a resonance. We publish these books exactly as they originally appeared, just giving them a new frame. So you could say that we are selling very inexpensive antiques or artifacts.”

The 1897 Sears Roebuck catalogue, or Consumers Guide as it was then called, is an “artifact” to make the reader’s mouth water. As S. J. Perelman says in an introduction to the volume called “Browsers’ Delight,” the cover of the catalogue sports “a rather overweight divinity—Ceres, the corn and earth goddess, I judged—posed beside a cornucopia from which gush forth a variety of goodies—upright pianos, wardrobes, stoves, et cetera.” Over six thousand items are listed in the index, Perelman points out, ranging “from autoharps to kraut cutters, from dulcimers to teething rings, from foot scrapers to feather boas.” Or, to be strictly alphabetical, from abdominal corsets to zulu guns.

The copy accompanying this profusion of goods is what we would now call the hard sell. Richard Sears, who is reputed to have written personally every one of the millions of words of text in these 786 pages (except, possibly, the testimonials from satisfied customers), doesn’t just describe: he exhorts, cajoles, and plots with the customers to run their local retail stores out of business. “Our factory to consumer system may be hard on the middleman, but it’s easy on the consumer. Which class deserves the most consideration?” a marginal note asks. Sears also sprinkles the text with epigrams and puns. For example, on a page describing men’s furnishings is the stern admonition “Shiftless He Who Shirtless Goes.” And under ladies’ summer union suits, he writes, “In union there is strength.”

For the modern browser, however, the most startling thing about the Consumers Guide is the prices. If the portable forge for $6.30, or the popcorn popper for eight cents, or the seven-foot miner’s tent, complete with poles, for $2.30 doesn’t get to us, surely the man’s cashmere overcoat for $5.25, twelve-pound pails of imported herring for eighty-five cents, or a four-panel wooden door (weight twenty-two pounds) for $1.10 will set up wistful vibrations.