Reading a few recent articles on the supposed “demise of retail” and or the “end of bricks and mortar business as we know it” several thoughts occurred to me as well as a few fond memories.
These articles reveal several things about modern culture not the least of which is how uneducated and divorced from our past our “journalists”are.The basic story these articles tell is that online retail is taking over from “traditional” modes of retail or in common speak bricks and mortar walk in stores.There are several reasons why this is happening,increasing taxes and regulations forcing mom and pop retailers out,greater variety of offerings online,corporate consolidation etc.However this is a perfect example of the old saying “the more things change,the more they stay the same”
Going back to my youth and one of the men that I had immediate respect for,once I realized there was such a thing,my grandfather on my mother’s side.When I first laid eyes on a Sears & Roebuck catalog,it was the first year of school for me and the first year that my formal reading education was taking place.My reading material consisted of various school books,but also the Sears catalog as it was full of pictures with accompanying descriptions of what those pictures were.It was a wonderful thing for a child of six to look through,even though by then it had shrunk a bit from it’s full heyday.
There were in those pages any and all manner of durable goods,clothes,car parts,tires,farm equipment,sporting goods,woodworking equipment,even guns and ammo all available for purchase by phone or mail order.In the older catalogs you could buy stationary steam engines and boilers,mining equipment,sawmill equipment,you name it,if it would fit on a train car,they carried it up to and including complete houses as illustrated in the above picture.They were the very definition and shining example of the invisible hand of capitalism at work in the free market.
Years later as I became increasingly curious about where we came from and where we were heading as a family,I began to ask grandpa questions about where he was from.One story I never will forget,was how he became a mechanic.Growing up on a farm near Meridian,Mississippi he left home at the age of 16 to attend a trade school where he learned the mechanical basics in practice and theory.Cars were still the new kid on the block and there was still plenty of theory about how they should behave in practice,but that is another story.
Once he had settled into his new employment and had gotten established in a upscale boarding house just down the street from the Ford dealer he worked for,he began sending some money home every month.In addition to that he also inquired of the local REA as to the possibility of them running electricity to the farm.Back then few people outside of town proper had electricity and most farms were still ran during daylight or by light of a kerosene lamp.The REA man had told him that if grandfather provided the wire and insulators,they would provide the poles and installation.He got a short list of what was needed and proceeded to hit the Sears catalog to order it up.
Two weeks or so later a large spool of wire,insulators and of course a few switches,light sockets and bulbs arrived at the train depot just a few miles from the farm.Another week later all was installed and working to his father’s amazement.The kerosene lamps were relegated to the high shelf in the kitchen for use in an emergency.No more buying Kero,less of a fire hazard and generally much less time wasted trimming wicks and striking matches and as grandma said no one missed the smell or the soot from the lanterns.
Later on a water well pump replaced the pump jack and bucket and rope the farm used for water supply,and later when my great grandmother was up in years a new electric motor and gear reducer was added to the Westinghouse ringer washing machine,all of it ordered through Sears.
The business model of the time allowed tens of thousands of people operating in voluntary concert to provide needed goods to people in order to drive industry and make daily life a little bit better than the day before.All of this was started by one man,with an idea to do things better,before the turn of the last century.
Today the wheel has turned yet again,the paper catalog has been replaced by one’s and zero’s and an ever increasing variety of items are being supplied and ordered to make peoples lives a little bit better than the day before.The wheel has rolled around back to where it started and there truly is nothing new under the Sun.