Online archive of retail catalogs gives nostalgic glimpse of life before Amazon

Jason Liebig with one of his catalogs, a 1967 Sears Wish Book at home in Astoria, Queens, NY.
Jason Liebig with one of his catalogs, a 1967 Sears Wish Book at home in Astoria, Queens, NY. Courtesy

Retail sentimentality runs deep.

As proof, consider that people plan to hold a candlelight vigil over the closing of a Target store in Kansas.

As further evidence, look to Jason Liebig.

While YouTubers Dan Bell and Erik Pierson go in with cameras to show the ruins of retail within decrepit malls and struggling national chains, Liebig is on a different mission.

He shows you what used to fill those stores and malls.

Liebig, 48, runs — with the help of Alan Angerbauer — The site, which started in 2006, is an online trove of retailers’ catalogs from the 20th century.

Sears, JC Penney, Spiegel and FAO Schwarz are represented in the archive, as is Montgomery Ward.

The site was referenced by media last month amid the announcement that Sears is bringing back its Wish Book this year.

“We commonly accept the songs we listen to, we connect the movies, the video games, cartoons are ingrained in us,” Liebig said from his home in Astoria, Queens, New York. “But just as ingrained is this pop-culture consumerism.

“I’m a pop-culture consumer archivist, and these catalogs are just as connected to people as a favorite Led Zeppelin song.”

Liebig, originally from Columbus, Nebraska, said he grew up with catalogs and got some of his toys from Penney’s and Sears’ catalogs.

He sees his website as another way to document our cultural history online.

In the early 2000s, he came across websites doing very rudimentary archiving.

“I saw sites with individual catalog pages,” he recalled, but he wanted people to have the entire catalog experience. “I sat down and said, ‘I’ve got a scanner and catalog; let’s see what I can do.’”

Liebig gets most of his catalogs through eBay and occasionally receives donated ones.

He admits spending $75 to $100 for a 1945 Sears catalog is a lot, but “the cost doesn’t compare with allowing 10,000 people or more to experience it online.”

For those who’d like to take on this work, some advice from Liebig: “Scanning 300-, 400- or 500-page catalogs is really, really terrible.”

“You’re tearing the catalog apart, which is heartbreaking and tedious,” he said.

Though technology has improved since his first scans, it’s still an hours-long process, he said. Still, that slog of scanning gets recognized by his audience, some of whom send thank-you emails.

“My favorite emails,” Liebig said, “are the ones that speak to nostalgia or family memories, like, ‘I spent three hours with my 80-year-old mom going through the catalogs.’ People will tell me, ‘My brothers and sisters looked for hours, talking about them.’

“These catalogs are tied in to specific holidays in their past and these memories are emotionally loaded. It’s like a healthy drug.”

Catalogues from his own childhood, such as a 1976 Sears or Penney’s, are among his favorites.

But Liebig doesn’t stop there.

“There are lots of ones that predate me that are beautiful. The photography is gorgeous,” he said. “I also like the weird but innocent and space-agey ones that show the classic American Christmas, very ’50s or ’60s.”

As for Sears or Penney’s, two of the merchants featured on the site, he’s had “lovely conversations” with their fans that have ranged from “curiosity to words of support.”

Has it altered his view of the company that is perhaps their main retail nemesis: Amazon?

“If you look at what Sears did early 20th century, they were ... the Amazon of their time,” Liebig said.. “Their catalogs had the entire world of products that could never fit into a Woolworth’s.

“But, there’s bloodshed in the progress,” he said, adding that he contributes to it. “I have a Prime account and use the hell out of that thing. Anytime I can avoid going out and seeing throngs of people, I will.”

He doesn’t see retail nostalgia going away anytime soon, and his outlook is similar to Bell’s reasons for producing his “Dead Mall” series on YouTube.

“The idea of shopping itself being a communal experience could potentially go away,” Liebie said. “I believe it probably won’t ... because we are hard-wired to be social.

“I’m curious how nostalgia changes. Going and buying something isn’t profound, but people you went with, that infuses those places for you later with nostalgia.”

His resolve in catalogs serving as a cultural touchstone is firm. Ultimately, he’d like to archive complete sets of major merchants’ holiday catalogs or maybe suggest to someone an even bigger dream.

“Someone,” he said, “should do a documentary on these things.”

Debbie Cockrell: 253-597-8364, @Debbie_Cockrell

On TV and in print

Jason Liebig also is a food historian and is featured on “Food Flashback,” which will premiere Thursday (Nov. 16) on the Cooking Channel.

According to the show’s promotional material, he will explore “snacks and treats from our past that have gone away only to return again.”

Liebig also has worked as a consultant for TV shows such as “Mad Men,” dealing with merchandise packaging from different decades.

His candy and confections history knowledge was featured in a July New York Times article.