Editor's note: Welcome to James Lileks, whose column is moving from the Friday Metro section to Variety on Mondays.
Amazon has a new service that lets you order home improvements online, and you can get a $20 gift card the first time you do. If you're thinking a big brown box lands on your stoop and a muffled voice from within says: "I'm here to clean your dryer vent," no. They pass along the job to a local. I was tempted to order a bridge to the Vikings stadium, and see if anyone would do it for $8.9 million. The city could use the $20 card to buy something helpful, like a copy of "Negotiating With NFL Teams for Dummies."
I suppose I could send someone a Boiler Tuneup for Christmas, but I don't like shopping online for gifts. I prefer the old-fashioned approach. Catalogs. You might have noticed the flood of catalogs has begun. Just as the malls are already fully involved in decorations that shout one-word concepts like JOY and MERRY and GIVING and SEASON, the mailbox bursts with glossy circulars from companies you've never heard of. Amalgamated Old Virginia Sock Factory? Why would I want to — oh, look at those. Star Wars socks, make your feet look like Yoda's gnarly horny toes. For cute.
Herewith is a guide to the secret messages of the catalogs you will surely be getting.
You Can't Think of Anything so It's Pears Again This Year
This catalog sells fruit in big baskets at prices that suggest the produce was grown on the Moon. A great gift for friends and relatives who always forget to buy eight grapefruit the size of bowling balls when they go grocery shopping.
You Are Ninety-Five Years Old
These catalogs have names like Yankee Store or Country Traders or Ye Olde Batch O' Crapp. They sell candy that hasn't been made since 1962 and over-the-counter drugs that haven't been seen since Ed Sullivan went off the air. Benson's Borated Oil for Corns! Parker's Little Spleen Pills! The product descriptions go something like this:
"Remember the days when the ringing of the doorbell meant someone was at the front door with a telegram telling you Uncle Frank was taking the Chatanooga Choo-choo to come visit, or Cousin Elsie had her neck boil lanced? We might not be able to bring back the telegram, to say nothing of Uncle Frank, but we've found a company that makes the original doorbell you know and loved. One bong, $35.99. Two bongs, $45.99."
You Have No Taste. Sorry.
My favorite catalog. There's a burly dude on the cover holding a 4-foot-tall beer mug. Inside: "The Best of Shemp" Three Stooges DVD compilations. A chewing-tobacco spit cup with SEXY GRANDMA on the side. A plastic fish mounted on a plastic plaque; it says PACKERS SUCK when you walk past. John Deere-branded marital aids.
You Have Too Many Earnest Bumper Stickers
This is the catalog that makes you suspect MPR sold your name to a select group of quality marketers. Of course, there's the 16-CD collection of "Garrison Keillor's Favorite Pauses," which is 42 hours of pregnant silence, and there's PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre Lost Classics," including that show where people in dark clothing walk around a series of gloomy rooms and complain about the servants and then World War I happens. There's "Downton Abbey Monopoly" and VHS tapes of Sherlock Holmes, with Ian McKellan introducing Jeremy Brett, who introduces Basil Rathbone.
You will also find scarves and plaques with nice sayings, like "A Sister Is a Person Who Is Always a Sister" or something equally beige.
You might tire of the catalog flood, of carting them from mailbox to recycling bin with a desultory glance in transit, but they're a throwback to the old wish-books. When the Sears or Penney's Christmas catalog came, you gave it your full attention, and dog-eared the pages that had something you wanted. I do the same with catalogs we get, because everything has something I wouldn't mind unwrapping. You dog-ear the page and let your loved ones figure out what you liked. It beats e-mailing a link to a specific Amazon page. Where's the mystery, the surprise?
Oh, an e-mailed confirmation of a purchase of an overpriced, underused bridge!
You shouldn't have.