Well, what else are you gonna do after splashing on a little Bay Rum?


by Jeff Fecke February 17, 2009 • I’m a big fan of the Vermont Country Store catalog. While I don’t actually buy anything from there (though I intend to get some Lifebuoy for next Christmas), it’s extremely entertaining, a little piece of Americana that stubbornly clings to life.

Jeff Fecke is a freelance writer who lives in Eagan, Minnesota.In addition to his own blog, Blog of the Moderate Left, he also contributes to Alas, a Blog, Minnesota Campaign Report, and AlterNet. Fecke has appeared as a guest on the “Today” show, the Alan Colmes radio show, and the Mark Heaney Show. Fecke is divorced, and the father of one really terrific daughter. His debut novel, The Valkyrie’s Tale, is now available.

For those not familiar with the catalog, it feels like the sort of catalog your grandmother would have ordered sundries out of. And I’m not just saying that to Generation Y — if you’re a boomer, it’s the sort of catalog your grandmother probably ordered sundries out of. They specialize in keeping dead brands alive (Bay Rum cologne! Licorice Allsorts! Bozo the Clown bop bags!) and serving up the sort of technology that was cutting edge in 1954, like your basic double-edge razor, or an Olivetti manual typewriter. Now, I did not come of age in the ’50s, but heck — it’s kind of nice to see that stuff still out there. Not everyone wants to be on the net. Not everyone wants to use those newfangled disposable razors. I like to think that when I’m 77, and not wanting to get the brain implant, that I’ll be able to buy an old-fashioned internet computer through a similar company — or indeed, the same one.

But the purveyors of the Vermont Country Store have come under fire for adding something new to the catalog, something that’s selling well, but bumping up against the staid, olde timey-quality of the catalog: they’re selling sex aids:

[Lyman] Orton, a spry 67-year-old with a country storekeeper’s sense of what sells and what doesn’t, says the idea of helping older folks keep sexually active was his.

“We never got any letters saying we want this. This was a sense, because our customers are a certain age and sex is below the surface in the world we deal in. I said, ‘Look, let’s see if our customers respond to this.’”

What are they selling? Well, intimate compact massagers, herpes relief sprays, hair dye that’s primarily for your partner’s enjoyment, that kind of thing. And Orton says it’s selling; turns out that the people who are buying the manual typewriters are also having sex — and it’s less embarrassing to order your vibrator from the Vermont Country Store than to take a trip into town to SexWorld.

Naturally, this is not going over well with a certain segment of the store’s clientele:

The customers responded, alright — some with their pens, some with their pocketbooks.

“The intimate massagers are certainly not what will uplift the youth of America but instead will lead them to be perverted pleasure seekers,” wrote one customer, asking to be removed from the mailing list. “Please rethink what you are doing.”

“I am one of the women who respects her God-given human femininity,” wrote another now-former subscriber, in a longhand letter. “These items are offensive to me.”

Orton figures he got 600 letters, most of them critical. Some called the offerings “pornographic.” Others told Orton his father wouldn’t have approved.

“You’d think I suggested that we sell nuclear devices to terrorists,” Orton said.

In fact, the “intimate solutions” items have been big sellers, though the company won’t give sales data or say which items are moving the fastest.

“It turns out they wanted these products, and they spoke with their wallets,” Cabot Orton said.

The people who are complaining think that this is completely out of character for an old-fashioned catalog company, but they’re 100 percent wrong. After all, their grandmothers used to order exactly this type of thing from Sears, Roebuck, & Co., to help alleviate “Female Hysteria.” And women bought them — and of course they did.

No, this is, in fact, perfectly in keeping with the longstanding tradition of catalog companies to offer a little bit of everything for everyone. It started with the Sears and Montgomery Ward, and has continued on through to the modern version of the catalog retailer. It’s a long and very American tradition, the ability to order for delivery a new bed, a new record player, some toys for the kids, and some toys for the adults.

Don’t get me wrong — I can understand being surprised to find the Intimate Solutions section of the catalog. I certainly was when I first tripped across it, and I remember laughing at the time, finding it a bit incongruous, an odd thing to find amidst the flannel nightgowns and cotton plaid pajamas.

But just because you’re wearing old-fashioned pajamas, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a libido. I’m rather cheered by the fact that a catalog aimed at the over-fifty set is aware that over-fifty doesn’t mean over intimacy.