Yellow Pages -- the dustbin of history? (Justin Sullivan/Getty…)
Show of hands – who likes the Yellow Pages?
OK, that’s two: me, and Cerberus Capital Management, the private equity firm that’s buying the Yellow Pages from AT&T. The price tag is nearly a billion in cash and a note, and nearly half equity interest in a new outfit named YP Holdings. In other words, it's maybe half of the Dodgers’ sale price. [That’s my new unit of business money measurement – Dodger dollars.] Still, the Yellow Pages took a nearly $3 billion write-down last year.
Cerberus is the big Park Avenue firm that has worked its turnaround magic on such varied ventures as real estate, car rental companies, firearms, TV stations and Formica. Cerberus also happens to be the name of the three-headed dog who, in Greek mythology, keeps the departed from departing from the underworld. As an inapt name choice, it is on par with La Mancha Development. In the 1980s, that company built mini-malls all over Southern California.
The partners named it "La Mancha," thinking that that phrase meant "impossible dream," as in Don Quixote and windmill-tilting. In fact, it is Spanish for "the spot" or "the stain." That Cervantes, what a jokester.
Does this sale mean that Cerberus thinks the Yellow Pages, with a nearly 130-year past, still has a future when your fingers can do the walking via your computer mouse??
Why so much hate on for the Yellow Pages? Seattle imposed fines for uninvited deliveries, and San Francisco has referred to them as "blight" and banned their free distribution except on an opt-in basis: If you don’t ask for them to be left on your doorstep, the Yellow Pages people can’t leave one for you. Environmentalists fret about the tons of paper the directories are printed on just going to landfills or, more rarely, to recycling. Of course the Yellow Pages companies themselves, who sued San Francisco for singling them out, have a survey showing their books are more trusted than the Internet.
The Yellow Pages did yeoman service for a long time, even in unexpected iterations. Like Sears catalogs, they sometimes hung on hooks in the nation’s finest outhouses. [Marginally apropos of that, I can take the opportunity to quote the remark credited to several writers, and addressed to the author of a critical review or a bad book: "I am sitting in the smallest room in the house. I have your review/book before me. Pretty soon, it will be behind me.’’]
I like the Yellow Pages for the same reason I like bookstores and the printed encyclopedia – the serendipity of discovery. Walk down an aisle at random in a bookstore and you’ll find an interest you never knew you had. Page through an encyclopedia looking for ice fishing and you’ll find yourself engrossed in an entry about the history of icons.
And there in the Yellow Pages are ads clamoring like puppies to get your attention, in all manner of goods and services and type sizes and face and colors: the company that promises, with admirable honesty to beat anyone’s prices in town, "whenever possible." Firms trumping each other with longevity: "since 1992 … family-owned since 1949.’’ The dentist whose office staff speaks "Arminian.’’ Electrical service "with a conscience,’’ a bee removal service where "honesty is success." The veterinarian where "pets are people too." Who knew you could get secure paper shredding seven days a week?
When there’s space, the Yellow Pages squeezes in a public service ad – "Have you hugged your children today?" and "Always recycle your outdated directories." I love the pictures of plumbers holding pipe wrenches and grinning confidently, of serious-faced medical people in white lab coats, ads for the plumbing and electrical companies with pink AIDS ribbons or Christian fish symbols or both. And you have to give points for cleverness to "Mowtown Gardening."
What the Internet can’t match when it comes to the Yellow Pages are the pages of public services listed at the front, city by city listings for water and power emergencies, diagrams of sports venues like Dodger Stadium and the Coliseum, great freeway maps, city street guides and government services that include San Gabriel’s code enforcement department as well as the phone number for the damaged currency department at the U.S. Mint in Washington, D.C., just in case the dog ate half of your wallet.