Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Genuine History Book

I love Daedalus Books. I love flipping through the catalog I get every two months, circling titles that I absolutely have to buy, and checking off titles to look up on Goodreads and mark as "to-read" in my account.

I only visit the Daedalus Books site to buy the books I want so badly. I never browse there because I'd vacuum out my savings account alarmingly fast (despite the company's always-met promise that you'll save money when you buy books from them), and I need a good portion of that money to buy or lease a car that runs after my family and I move to Henderson. In fact, I'm working again on putting a full stop to buying books, except for those that cannot wait, such as The Garden of Happy Endings by Barbara O'Neal, which is coming out on April 17. O'Neal's The Secret of Everything is what makes me want to go to New Mexico so badly, and I'm a fan of hers forever.

It sounds like it could be a vicious cycle, me, a bibliophile, trying to stop buying books. I have so many in my room I can choose from, and once we reach Henderson, I'll have a library card and my book-buying habit will drop off precipitously. I'm only doing it now because I refuse to be part of the City of Santa Clarita's libraries, after the City Council cut ties with the County of Los Angeles library system, deciding to create their own, and causing the loss of a few million titles that were available through the County of Los Angeles. The Santa Clarita Valley is isolated enough as it is. This action isolated it further.

Getting back to Daedalus Books, I've found less titles to buy right away. This is no fault of the company, but rather my attempt at self-control, determining what books I can wait to read. And then there is one book, a genuine history book, that I needed so badly that, if I lived near their warehouse outlet in Columbia, Maryland, I would have rushed right over there and possibly even bought two copies, despite it being 640 pages, though thankfully in paperback.

This book, Sears, Roebuck & Co.: The Best of 1905-1910 Collectibles, is what the tablecloths at the Po Folks restaurants in Florida and Buena Park had. There were listings from Sears, Roebuck & Co. touting many items that probably were used by Southern people, my people. I looked at these drawings and read the copy of each item with pure fascination. Someone used this glass pitcher. Someone played that piano. Someone treasured that corncob pipe.

When I saw this book in the latest Daedalus Books catalog, I rushed over to the computer, found it on the website, and ordered it, having had an account on the website for almost a year now. I wanted to see what other items Sears, Roebuck & Co. had sold in its catalog. I don't know how Leslie Parr, Andrea Hicks, and Marie Stareck found these pages in good-enough condition to reprint them (I want to find out), but here they are. This is what families pored over, figuring out what they needed and what they wanted. An Edgemere banjo cost $3.80 back then. A Beckwith Imperial Grand Organ, 475 pounds in five octaves, and 550 pounds in six octaves was $46.75. That was a lot of money then.

Pulling this book out of the Daedalus Books box yesterday afternoon, I felt myself getting so close to history for the first time in weeks. There is a great deal of history in the book I'm writing about the making of the Airport movies, but it's a detached history. It's concrete. It happened. I can only get as close to it as my dogged research and interviews with people involved in the making of those movies will allow me, the people especially. I haven't interviewed everyone I've sought yet, and some may refuse for whatever reason. Here, in this Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog, these items were sold, the families who paged through the catalog are long gone, and so are the copywriters and the artists that drew the items. But I still feel them with me. I want to know who they were. Did the copywriter in charge of writing about clocks, perhaps, like his or her work, or was it just to feed their family? Did they aspire to write more than this? Did they want to work at a newspaper or write novels? And were those artists happy enough just to be able to draw, or did they paint on the side as well, or did they look to better also? Perhaps, like me, the copywriters and the artists did this job to bring in money while they pursued their true passions.

I want to know more about the people and families who ordered from this catalog Do some of those items still exist, owned by descendants? Did those who ordered violins and organs get exactly what they ordered? Did those who smoked the pipes listed here find great quality as advertised? Who were they?

This is only a sampling, of course. These reproductions only cover collectibles, or, rather, what are considered collectibles today. There were a host of other categories that Sears, Roebuck & Co. pushed. How did this catalog manage to do so much by sheer force of those behind it? What kept them going besides good old American commerce?

This line of thinking happens with a lot of things. I walk through the aisles of the Walmart Supercenter in this valley and I wonder who created the blueprint of the store, what architect is profiting so well from such ventures, what project they're working on now. I look at the lighting fixtures high up on the ceiling and I wonder who installed those, and what stores they had done in the past, and if they only work locally or travel around the country. It's the only way to make a Walmart seem interesting. I don't feel the presence of those who worked on this Walmart or the Target in Golden Valley or anybody who worked on the casinos that line the Las Vegas Strip. But I do think about them, about who they are, and I wonder where they are now.

I remember one late night at Fiesta Henderson in which I was walking around the casino floor and saw yellow tape surrounding four video slot machines clustered together. There were a few guys there who had put down a smelly tar-like substance, I guess to repair a few small holes in the floor or whatever it was that brought them there. They were sitting around, one guy texting, two talking, probably waiting for the substance to harden. They're the people I always want to know more about. Unless there's major repairs going on somewhere, you don't see people like them often. And you don't really think about them because you've got errands to do. In my mind, I can't help being surrounded by them. I want to know their part in my world, just like I want to know more about those who put together the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogs, and did what should be considered heroic work, because that looks like it was a lot to do, like gathering the universe in pieces and trying to put it together in some way that makes sense.

This book is going into my permanent collection, even without me having read it all. I know I'll be referencing it for years to come. The 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog is also available from the same publisher, so I think I'll be buying that one soon. I can't wait to wander fully through this history and learn about what people wanted in their homes and their lives.

1 comment:

  1. I lived in Columbia, Maryland, for three months. It was hideous. I don't know if Daedalus existed then, but if they did and I had known about them, I probably would have stood at their door, whining like a puppy who wants a treat. Books. Yeah, books.