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An Ode To The Sears Wish Book, My Childhood Obsession

As a girl living in rural Canada, the Wish Book let me imagine myself in a grown-up world. Now, as Sears closes its doors, I’m nostalgic for the days of catalogues and paper and bustling stores in small city malls.

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The author, circa 1992, with her sisters, Kate, left, and Lauren (holding the Barbie bus)

The author, circa 1991, with her sisters, Kate, front, and Lauren, right.

Maybe it was its authoritative thickness, or the Christmas scene on its cover, signalling the countdown to the most magical time of year. Whatever the reason, the arrival of the Sears Canada Wish Book in the months before the holiday season was, for this glossy magazine-obsessed rural Ontario kid, one of the most anticipated events of the year. Not quite as exciting as my birthday, or of December 25 itself. But definitely right up there.

Elbows out, I’d tussle with my sisters to be the first to paw through it, to dog-ear my way through the 300 pages containing all of the items Sears wanted us to wish for, our parents to pay for and then, after a few weeks, for us to actually have. I’d treat the thing like a hallowed book, beginning at the beginning, where the gifts progressed from least to most expensive: Did I want the pink bubble bath and pouf set for $25? Absolutely. A super newfangled $949 camcorder? Uh, duh.

My sisters and I never actually ordered from the Wish Book, not even one time that I can remember. The town over from ours had a Sears depot, where you could pick up the items you ordered from any of the Sears catalogues. But we seldom stepped foot in it because ordering from those telephone-book sized catalogues was a rare event. Browsing was fine, we were taught, but money was not a thing to be frivolously spent on cheaply made bath sets.

SearsWishBook1998

The 1998 Sears Canada Wish Book.

Instead for me, looking at the Sears Wish Book was a game of imagination — of dreaming up a life when I would be grown up and have my own money and could buy the stuff I wanted. I’d decide which Sears fashion model was “me,” and which was “my husband.” The spreads of home decor gave me a space in which to imagine myself. I’d host gregarious dinner parties in that dining room with seafoam green carpets and matching drapery. I’d head off to my high-powered job in that great pinstriped pantsuit, dragging that slick briefcase on wheels.

Sears, of course, just wanted to sell stuff. But I miss that tactile time, an experience so different from the listless scrolling I do on my smartphone these days. It’s actually been a very long time since the Wish Book was even printed and mailed out — they started scaling back production as early as the mid-’90s, with occasional comebacks throughout the following years.

In November, I visited a Sears store in St. Catharines, Ontario, scheduled to shutter forever in January. It was full of loud red, yellow, and black liquidation signs suspended from the ceiling: Everything Must Go! I picked up a pair of fluffy slippers from a mostly bare shelf. Ten-year-old me would’ve totally dog-eared the Wish Book page they’d have been displayed on back in the day. But 30-year-old me was just sad. As the Canadian Sears stores empty out, I’m wistful for a time of catalogues and paper, of bustling stores in small city malls that once felt like a community, and now feel so hollow.

Interestingly, south of the border, Sears revived its Wish Book for the 2017 holiday season, boasting the wide range of products in its pages. “From drains to drills to dresses… from tools to TVs to tablets, we’ve got your back!” chief marketing officer for Sears and Kmart, Kelly Cook, said in a statement. But as one excited comment after the next flooded in on Instagram, there was a definite theme — can I buy a physical copy of this somewhere? The Wish Book — iconic since its first printing in 1933 — would be digital only, save for a select handful of Sears’s “best customers.”