Last week in this space, we explored the concept of shopping local. This week, we’re shopping mental.
I have always found the Christmas catalog to be a useful harbinger of the American economy’s health. When the glossy, colorful solicitations to consumer excess clogged the mailbox in days of yore, that was a sign that the economy was firing on all cylinders and that retail firms believed in my willingness to plunge myself into a crevasse of debt to scratch the itch for useless gadgetry their catalogs were causing. Conversely, those years devoid of catalogs were years of recession, in which only Omaha Steaks and The Sharper Image had any faith in my ability to stimulate the Gross National Product by overbuying for Christmas.
It seems 2014 seems is a year of recovery, if my mail carrier’s hernia is any indication. Though Neiman-Marcus and Tiffany do not deign to include me on their mailing lists, I inexplicably made it back into the good graces of Restoration Hardware and the Art Institute of Chicago, both of whom apparently assume I am well on the way to becoming a part of The One Percent.
Mainstream institutions, of course, hold little interest for me; not when people on the very margins of mercantile are trying to get my attention. Like, for instance, The Best Brushes (“All Natural Brushes & Etc.”) from Yerington, Nevada, which must be somewhere near Area 51. Using a corporate philosophy similar to that of the Scotch Tape Store in the old SNL skit, The Best Brushes lives up to its moniker by offering every kind of brush imaginable, from Mushroom Brushes, because your fungi aren’t pristine, to Aquarium Brushes, because your fish aren’t either, to Breast Massage Brushes, because…well, that’s none of my business. What really catches my fancy in this catalog is not a brush at all, but an Oyster Glove made of stainless steel chain mail. For a trifling $249.50, my shucking will be safer than ever. My jiving, alas, may require a pricier remedy.
It’s always fun to peruse the catalog called American Girl (“Follow Your Inner Star”) for a hint on what to get the Stepford Children in your life. This year’s lineup is made creepier than ever by a flashback doll from 1974 named Julie Albright, only because I actually knew someone named Julie Albright back in the day, and this doll looks nothing like her, festooned as it is with blond braids, bell bottoms and a peace-sign T-shirt. For $134, this one comes with its own paperback book called The Big Break, presumably ghostwritten by Goldie Hawn’s press agent.
Another window into the zeitgeist is annually provided by Things You Never Knew Existed, part of the zany Johnson Smith Company. Within, there’ll be the topical and therefore most ephemeral Christmas presents you can get (this year’s future garage sale items include the Derek Jeter Final Season Coin Card Collectible and the Obama Countdown Clock), but also an unsettling number of firearms-related goodies, including the Shotgun Shell Thermal Bottle, the Pulp Fiction Gun Grip Mug and the Gun Chamber Pencil Holder, ideal for having a high-caliber Christmas.
Heidi Klum was on the cover of this year’s Sharper Image catalog, but even she couldn’t persuade me to drop $89.99 on a Jellyfish Aquarium, “two lifelike jellyfish, illuminated by 18 LEDs that change color with five different effects” though it might have. On the other hand, I did stare for fully 90 seconds at the entry touting the Backpack Vacuum, the 800-watt vacuum cleaner you strap on to walk through your house sucking up grime. It’s just $199.99 and I promise not to think too much less of you if you actually buy such a thing.
I got a catalog last week, and I don’t know why, from Pajamagram, a company whose slogan should be “When you lack the imagination to come up with anything remotely individualized for the person on your list.” The only thing more impersonal than receiving a Pajamagram would be having it announce that you’ve also been given a Fruit of the Month Club membership.
On the other hand, a new entry from Kotula’s (“The Guys with the Goods”) opened my eyes to the sensible splendor of the Magnetic Can Cooler, which is essentially a koozie that’ll stick to the hood of your car as you drive down the road, Taste of the Wild sausage, in flavors including elk, bison and wild boar, and the Zap Cane, because nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a walking stick that can deliver a million-volt charge to whomever comes down your chimney unexpectedly.
But always, always, there is the sublime excess of Hammacher Schlemmer, delivering the daffy goods with a straight face since 1848. I fully intended calling CEO Rich Tinberg in New York for the inside skinny on this year’s catalog, but I was bedazzled by its contents. The Darth Vader Toaster for $49.95 wasn’t bad, nor was the Power Nap Head Pillow, designed like a plush, comfy diving bell helmet, for just $99.95, but aren’t these just a little too sensible?
I say blow it out in our newly recovering economy, and show Wall Street you’re not scared of them, by purchasing Zoltar, the full-sized classic fortune-telling machine seen in arcades and also the movie Big. For $9,000, perhaps he’ll even tell you what you’re getting next Christmas.
If you can’t wait till then, go ahead and give yourself the gift of Millennia, the only robot admitted to the Screen Actors Guild (okay, besides Ryan Gosling). It can dance, engage in banter and its synthesized voice carries clearly from six built-in speakers. The price? A trifling $345,000. Heck, the Alabama Republican Party can pull that out of petty cash, and if they order now, they’ll have something ready to replace Richard Shelby with in 2016.