When I first pitched the idea that would become “The Throwback Machine” to Penny, one of the notes I had scribbled down on my yellow legal pad was that I’d do my best to avoid “easy” targets like local folks just doing their thing in our old papers, smiling for the camera in dated clothes or wild hairstyles. Hey, we’ve all been there; you’re doing something important for the community and what better way to commemorate that than by getting your picture in the paper. That’s what we’re here for after all.
All that aside, I must admit that this week’s Throwback, taken from the Feb. 17, 1992, Journal Gazette, was real tempting. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not the two upstanding young businesswomen you see there representing J.C. Penney’s at the Cross County Mall. Like I said, it was the ‘90s and we all went through a phase where we dressed like militaristic backup dancers for Paula Abdul or like a student teacher on the first day of work. Well... you did if you were an adult. Being in my early teens at the time, I was off the hook on that one; I was supposed to dress in neon green surfing shorts and Ocean Pacific tee-shirts with skulls on them. Okay... I may or may not have worn Bugle Boy jeans at some point too, cut me some slack.
But we’re not talking about me (right now, anyway). We’re talking about what’s really funny about that photo: that perfectly stacked mountain of catalogs ready for the throngs of Mattoon-ians and Charleston-ites surely about to kick in the front door to snatch them up.
“Having the J.C. Penney Catalog in your home is like having a complete department store there,” said Catalog Supervisor Jerie Brown. “Our toll-free number to place orders is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she continued, almost as if there was someone from corporate standing just behind her waiting to whack her upside the head with a mannequin arm.
And if so, that’s certainly not her fault. I, too, worked a corporate retail job in another life and learned quite quickly how such things put you in a position of having to talk like you were programmed by an unholy combination of an insurance agent, a tax professional, and a car salesman. And actually, at least good car salesmen know that you know they’re trying to shine you on. Regardless, sometime I really should regale you with tales of what exactly I was supposed to say to customers to sell them a “Preferred Reader Card” and exactly how many times the assistant manager had to make me do actual drills to get it right.
It’s not like I don’t know what catalogs are. Heck if I don’t have a NAD stereo equipment catalog sitting on the top of my toilet tank right at this very second. And it’s not like I don’t remember that giant J.C Penney catalog arriving in the mail each summer, and winter too, either, now that I think about it, but man, something about that whole catalog scene just seems like it was so long ago, doesn’t it?
And yeah, it was really “that long ago” since those days when I’d leaf through the catalog every holiday season looking at the obscure toys that I knew weren’t sold at our J.C. Penney’s -- like Voltron figures from Matchbox (now worth a lot of money on eBay) or the “Shadowlord!” board game from Parker Brothers, a game which I did end up buying many years later on eBay complete with all its pieces for a sturdy eight bucks. And speaking of toll-free numbers, I really should tell you about the time I called the 1-800 customer service number from the instructions that came with the game just to see if anyone would really pick up.
Ahhh, what a time that must have been in 1992, standing there next to that year’s catalogs thinking that nothing would ever change. But of course we all know they did and we all know the reason why. The internet came along and once we got to the point where we no longer had any compunctions at all about credit card numbers floating around in inter-space, we discovered that simply clicking a button and having whatever blasted thing you bought show up on your front stoop sure beat having to rely on that huge catalog each year -- even if, as it says in this article, said catalog would have only set you back five bucks.
Along those same lines, lurking between the last days of the catalog and the dawn of Amazon, there was also, of course, QVC, and all its other T.V. home shopping brethren, which were for a time the hot new thing in retail. Same rules applied; why pony up five bucks for a giant book bound to be kept in a stack behind your dad’s 1970s stereo speakers and a basket of afghans (as they were in my house growing up) when you could just sit there, veg out and watch Kathy Lavin talk at you endlessly about vacuum cleaners, ironing boards, and some truly horrific clothing from something called “Quacker Factory.”
Here we are now in 2017 and my basic cable package still has about five of these channels all clustered on the low end of the dial, including one that appears to do nothing but hawk jewelry all hours of the day and night to... who? Well... that I’m not sure. The last time I watched any QVC just out of curiosity, they took some phone calls from some folks in the hinterlands and yeah, I wondered. I sat and oh how I wondered. Meanwhile does anyone out there know that there’s two crazy guys selling knives late at night on T.V.? Scary, given the times, but strangely fascinating.
Fast forward to present day. J.C. Penney’s is still here, holding down the last anchor remaining at the mighty Cross County Mall. I don’t know if either Brown or Erin Lockhart are still there either but if you are, you ladies sure were troopers for carrying in and stacking all those catalogs. Oh, and sorry for the wisecracks about the clothes. I’d totally be crushing... if either of you were my student teacher at the time, of course.