One Person’s Junk (Mail)


When my father moved his business for the last time in 2004, he got rid of a lot of the computer magazines and catalogues that he’d been accumulating over the years. I’d always had a fondness for those early years of PC Magazine — I talked about that a bit in an old Musecast video — but beyond the actual magazine columns and news stories, I always liked looking through the old advertisements for personal computers, seeing Moore’s Law in effect and wondering what more would happen to computers in my lifetime. (I still remember wanting Gateway 2000 computers simply because of the cow designs on their boxes, although this was at a time when that was the closest thing that any PC manufacturer had to personality.) I missed those old magazines when they were gone, along with the mountain of printed catalogues we got from Tiger Direct, with all their sales on computers and computer equipment and other related stuff. (Tiger Direct was where I bought my Atari Jaguar from, long after that system had stopped being produced or even sold anywhere else.)

Mom got more than her fair share of catalogues as well, although most of those were for big-and-tall clothing outlets, mixed in with the occasional kitsch places that I don’t think Mom ever bought anything from. She ordered from clothes catalogues so much that her name probably just got shared with all those other mail-order companies, and so our house continued to receive handful after handful of printed catalogues every day, even years after she stopped ordering from those places. The fact that so many of them continue to ship out catalogue after catalogue, even as recently as two years ago, probably says a lot about the markets that are out there for older people who either can’t, or don’t want to, shop on the Internet.

I don’t remember the first time I got an email advertisement from a company I’d done business with, but it was probably from Amazon. Online shopping wasn’t an option for me when I first got on the Internet, for a variety of reasons — as I said in that Musecast video, my first online purchase actually took place on CompuServe, because I’m that freaking old — but after my tiny bank finally got into the whole debit card thing in 1997, I did a lot of online shopping, in part because even the good record stores in Toledo weren’t carrying all the imports and other rarities from all the musicians I was devoted to at the time. I have backups of nearly all my old email accounts, but most of my super-early backups are still in Toledo, and I deleted email advertisements a lot back then just to help me save disk space. (I mean the advertisements I signed up for, of course; I’ve always deleted spam.)

Amazon has to be the online store that’s sent me solicited commercial emails for the longest time — I probably ordered from CDNOW before I ever shopped on Amazon’s website, but Amazon swallowed CDNOW up long ago — and I have to wonder just how I’ll feel when I get the chance to look back at those plain text emails I got from Amazon in the nineties that told me about all their latest sales, hyperlinks all over the place to save that oh-so-precious bandwidth because graphics in email were a no-no back then. My students can’t conceive of such an archaic way of doing business, of course, but I have to wonder if their grandparents get some of the catalogues that Mom used to get, and if they’re strewn about their grandparents’ houses in the same way, and how my students feel about those catalogues.

Back when I taught in Michigan, I actually used to pass some of those houses that people could buy from Sears and Roebuck catalogues in the early twentieth century, and I always wondered if my students who lived in those neighbourhoods knew about the history of those houses, and of how revolutionary catalogue shopping was back in the day. The persistence of some catalogues shows that there’s still a place for them, but as more and more baby boomers die out here, I have to wonder how much longer they’ll persist, and if those old computer catalogues of my father’s that I failed to save will start to have their own unique value, much like old Sears and Roebuck catalogues are still printed for nostalgic value today.

Going through old commercial emails to remember my past isn’t exactly something that’s high on my list right now, but I remember making sure to save some old Borders emails back before they went out of business, just so I could remember what it was like ordering from them. The Promotions folder of my Gmail account feels like it’s going to become a virtual treasure trove of memories to mine in ten or twenty years, as more online retailers open and close. My bathroom may not be full of those old printed catalogues, like seemingly all my relatives’ bathrooms were when I was younger, but I’m hoarding all that promotional material all the same, and while there might not be too much value in that, I still feel a little warm and soft inside when I remember ordering compact discs from CDNOW. Maybe I am turning into Mom, just in my own 21st century way here.

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