It’s all Johnson-Smith

My 11th and 12th years were a magical time, but not like I was afloat on a cloud of joyous delight like some hick version of Peter Pan. Au contraire, in fact.

By fall 1958 I’d been cast out of my grade school cocoon and herded smack-dab in the middle of junior high. I was caught completely unawares. As opposed to grade school, you actually had to study to succeed. Study? Me? I was just as likely to replace Clyde Beatty in his lion-taming gig. And when I think back on it, I probably would’ve done better with Clyde’s beasts than with the slings and arrows of junior high. Which is why I fell so hard for Johnson-Smith.

If you just wondered, “Who was Johnson-Smith?” it shows a few things about you. One, you’re a female. Or if you’re a male, then, two, you weren’t a child of the ’50s. And if you actually were a ’50s boy, you’re a disgrace to all red-blooded American guys.

Johnson-Smith wasn’t a person, but a catalog. And even then, it was a catalog in only a superficial sense. It was actually my ticket to a world far beyond the reaches of My Home Town, far beyond even what people who know nothing of metaphysics glibly call “The Real World.”

If you didn’t have their catalog, you might have seen their ad in comic books and men’s magazines. I can still recall it: “2,700 novelties! Giant catalog! Ten cents!” And with it was a drawing of the catalog, which for size and thickness made Webster’s Unabridged look like a pamphlet.

And the ad featured some of Johnson-Smith’s stellar attractions.

“Precision miniature camera — $1.50.”

“How to build and fly an airplane — $.35.”

“Extra-long comic beard — $.86.” (Author’s note: Not $.85, probably because it wasn’t just long but extra-long)

And of course that old standby, sure to get ’em every time: “Shocker joy buzzer — $.35.”

I’d seen the ad dozens, maybe even hundreds of times, but never acted on it till, in full and painful alienation from the Petrova school, Johnson-Smith held promise as a possible sanctuary. It was a promise that was abundantly fulfilled.

Frequently, you’ll hear recovering alcoholics say they were hooked from their first drink, and I can say the same about the catalog. Every page was full of wondrous goods I’d never seen, and many I could never have imagined.

Like what, you ask?

Well, how about the Self-Defender Ring?

Or outhouse salt and pepper shakers?

How about comic sign plaques like, “Don’t go away mad, just go away” or the classic — “Good-bye, Cruel World,” with the man in the derby hat flushing himself down the crapper.

Then there were itch powder, sneeze powder, squirting flowers and a glow-in-the-dark bowtie.

There were several pages devoted only to magic, from “The Magic Finger Chopper” to “Cigaret Producer and Vanisher.” There was a book, “Secrets of Ancient and Modern Magic.” On its cover was a magus levitating a woman, and it was only 35 cents!

There were all sorts of other books as well. Among them were the eminently practical, like “How to Tap Dance” and “How to Write Love Letters,” as well as the other-worldly, “Can We Talk to Spirit Friends?” “The Development of Seership, Hindoo and Oriental Methods,” and last but hardly least, “Practical Mind Reading.”

It was a mind-boggling tour of A Separate Universe. Everything I’d ever wanted but till then never knew existed was in there, could be mine for the taking, and with the most reasonable terms — I could pay by cash, personal check, money order, even postage stamps. And even though I was a frugal lad, I’d be sure never to place an order under a dollar, because if I did, they tacked on a 10-cent “service fee.”

Coping with the J-S crash

I can’t remember what was in my first order, or in almost all the others, either. I only remember a few things about them. First, the whole process was Thrills Unbounded. It started with me poring over the catalog for days, trying to narrow my order to only the best goods I could afford. Then, after I mailed in my order, I had at least a 10-day wait, on tenterhooks, before the order arrived. And then, upon opening the package, there was the thrill of, at long last, holding those precious goods in my grubby little hands.

And following that was inevitable disappointment.

I say disappointment was inevitable, and how could it not be? It’s not that everything was completely misrepresented, but it wasn’t described exactly, either. For example, take the magic book I ordered. The instructions for the first coin trick were as follows: “Take coin in your right hand, pretend to place it in your left hand, and then vanish it by your favorite method.” My favorite method of vanishing a coin? Not only did I not have a favorite method, I had no method at all, which is why I bought the book in the first place.

As for the practical jokes? Well, the squirting flower didn’t look like any kind of flower except a squirting flower. The joy buzzer, which the ad hinted could deliver a shock equal to a high-tension line, made a weird “Brrapp”-ing noise, but did little else — including shock anyone. I read and reread the book on clairvoyance, but never learned how to either read people’s minds or make them carry out my silent orders (and God knows I tried). And on and on and on.

But here’s the thing: No matter that almost nothing I ordered turned out how I expected, or even worked in the slightest — still, every other month or so, I’d send in another order. Why was that? Simple. Johnson-Smith didn’t really sell product — instead, they sold promise. The promise of being able to build a plane for 35 cents, or master the arts of black magic for 15 cents, or amaze both friends and strangers alike with comic recitations, also for 15 cents, kept me coming back for more. Besides, the catalog, while being nowhere near as huge as pictured in the ad, did indeed contain a big variety of tantalizing things — certainly big enough to keep me on the hook for a couple of years.

By ninth grade, I no longer ordered from Johnson-Smith, and I’m not sure why. Most logically, the game had played itself out and I was off in pursuit of other things (though I’m sad to admit schoolwork was not among them). I think that was about the time I discovered True, Saga and Argosy magazines, those tomes that fairly reeked testosterone galore from every page, so that may have been my new mishegas.

Plus ca change …

But even though the Johnson-Smith catalog and I parted company, it always occupied a warm spot in my heart. And why not? It provided me with a lot of entertainment and sparked all sorts of imaginative visions, even if none of them ever came true.

Plus I learned a vital life lesson from my J-S days, namely there was a hustle — and a hustler — around every corner, all too ready to separate me from my hard-earned shekels. And there still is.

Let’s get real: Yeah, J-S made all sorts of exaggerated claims for its wares, and pretty much took little ragamuffins nationwide for a ride. But isn’t that exactly what so many legitimate businesses do anyway? The product and verbiage may change, but the hustle doesn’t.

How about the college that claims 99% their graduates are employed within a month after graduation … without adding that almost all of them are minimum-wage slaves in jobs that have nothing to do with their field, and which they now have to spend the rest of their life paying off.

Or the piece of exercise equipment that promises to turn blup into muscle in mere months. If you don’t know them by name, you know them by sight, since they’re the ones that end up a year or two later on the buyer’s lawn, with a sign on it that says “Free.”

Then there are all sorts of “legitimate” professionals that probably shouldn’t be considered such. Among them, life coaches head my list, mostly because I can’t figure out what their halftime speeches would be like. “Live one for the Gipper”? The mind boggles.

A few years ago, Kookie found a Johnson-Smith catalog for sale at a flea market and got it for me. It was, amazingly, the same edition I spent so many hours devouring, page by page by page.

Just for giggles, I checked online bookstores to see how much Johnson-Smith catalogs are going for. The cheapest 1950s one I could find was $19; from there, they went to $86, and the Big Kahuna, the 1941 catalog, had an asking price of $680.

While I read my catalog only now and then, I still wouldn’t sell it for $19.

And, frankly, I wouldn’t sell it for $680 either.


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