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Mourning the Passing of 'Wish Book' Era : Retailing: Sears' 'Big Book' was more than a catalogue. It brought city style to the country, clothed generations and even taught folks to read.

January 29, 1993|ANDREA HEIMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What will America do without Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s trusty catalogue?

The "Big Book" was never on the cutting edge of fashion, but at one time, its popularity ensured that style eventually found its way to every corner of the country. Loyal customers say they're dismayed by Monday's decision to end catalogue sales and they're not sure how they will live without it.

Rita Carlson, 60, says she dressed herself, her five boys and her seven grandchildren with the help of the catalogue. "I've been using it since 1958, when I was working and raising the kids," says Carlson, who grew up in Philadelphia and now lives in Pasadena.

"That's how we outfitted the boys for school. When you have a big family and work long hours, you don't have the time to run around. In the catalogue, you have everything at your fingertips."

Carlson, an activities director at a retirement home, is reluctant to switch to a competitor.

"My mother used the Sears catalogue. I was dressed in Sears clothes and shoes, that's why I carried it on. It's a family tradition," she says. "The service is good, fast and efficient. I don't know what I'm going to do now."

Throughout its 97-year-history, the Sears catalogue offered its customers across the United States a chance to wear "city clothes."

"Sears was not top fashion, but they gave the customer the look of the period," says Mary Stevens, chair of the Fashion Design Department at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles.

"It was very exciting for people to have the opportunity to see, purchase and wear city clothes," Stevens says. "Prior to that, people had to wait to go to town or to the city."

Some of the catalogue's most popular items in the late 1800s and early 1900s included capes and elaborate hats, said Sears spokeswoman Mary Jean Houde. Fancy collars called "collarettes" were also big sellers, as were corsets of all shapes and sizes. In 1896, when the style of the day called for tiny waists and large busts, the catalogue featured "Dr. Warner's Health Corset--adapted to ladies deficient in bust fullness."

Historian Kevin Starr credits the Sears catalogue with precipitating migration from the country to the city in the 1920s, and with making city life seem more attractive.

"It was a form of upwardly mobile shopping," says Starr, an author and professor of urban and regional planning at USC. "It helped homogenize fashion, and broke down the distinction between city dress and country dress."

Sears was also one of the first companies to offer its own credit card and to standardize size and quality, says John Schutz, a history professor at USC.

"Sears was the first to stipulate cotton, wool, or synthetics in clothes," says Schutz, whose mother got her first sweater from the Sears catalogue. "And they provided credit until you were satisfied with what you got. Today Sears is just merchandise. But (back) then, they provided personal help."

Richard W. Sears, a former railroad station agent, began his business in 1886 selling watches and jewelry in North Redwood, Minn. Capitalizing on a burgeoning railroad industry that could deliver goods to the untapped Midwest, he soon began offering his merchandise through printed mailers.

In 1887, Sears moved his R.W. Sears Watch Co. to Chicago, where it is based today, and hired Alvah C. Roebuck. In 1896, Sears produced its first general merchandise catalogue, featuring 532 pages of goods targeting America's farmers and their families.

The phonebook-thick Big Books, published twice yearly-- "Spring/Summer" and "Winter/Fall"-- along with the annual Christmas "Wish Book," has offered everything from silk stockings to bicycle suits , and later even homes and cars.

A random sample of items from the 1896 catalogue includes: , a cashmere tailer-made woman's suit, "the most complete and attractive on the market" ($6.95), "Fine Fat Ankle Shoes" ($1.69), and a bicycle suit, complete with "self-supporting" knee pants, a coat and a cap ($5.95).

Many industry analysts say they have foreseen the death of the catalogue for some time. Sears, once on the cutting edge of mail order, has fallen way behind the times, and has remained "stuck in the 1930s," says Chicago catalogue consultant Maxwell Sroge. Until last year Sears didn't have an 800 number for placing orders, he said, and the company only recently began accepting non-Sears credit cards.

Many have also said that Sears, which still has about 14 million catalogue customers, has failed to keep up with fashion, and has lost touch with what the "average" American wears--though long-time Sears customers disagree.

"Their styles have been fine, and I think they've kept up with the times real well," says Alice M. Wall, 62, a resident of Okanogan, Wash., population 3,000. "They're not radical like some of the designs you see, and I think they represent the majority of the people. Everybody that I know has used it at one time or another. I'll really miss it."

The Sears Customer Affairs Line has received more than 100 calls from distressed customers since the announcement on Monday. (Orders will be taken until the end of the year.)

Still, Sears representatives say the decision to discontinue the catalogue is necessary to keep Sears alive.

"It is painful for us and for the customers; we're all adjusting to the announcement," says Sears spokeswoman Houde. Houde, who has been with Sears for 20 years, has her own childhood memories of the catalogue.

"My mother and grandmother used the catalogue," she says. "My grandmother would use the catalogue to play word games with me--it helped me learn to read . . . "

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