The Great Peterman

A Spy in the House of Work

If there is a Shangri-La on this earth, it must exist in the pages of catalogs. That's why they keep coming -- 12.8 billion every year, an average of 1.7 catalogs per home per week. That's why we keep buying -- an estimated $63 billion in 1995. Conventional wisdom says we do all that catalog shopping because we don't have any time and catalogs make shopping easy.

I say it's because we don't have any hope and catalogs make shopping perfect. Inside the pages of the ubiquitous L.L. Bean catalog, your camping trip is perfect. Perfect tent, perfect campfire -- trout so perfect, they practically clean themselves.

Inside the pages of the Sharper Image catalog, your toys are more than perfect -- they're perfectly self-indulgent.

And inside the Victoria's Secret catalog -- well, we all know what's perfect inside the Victoria's Secret catalog.

But the most perfect catalog of all is the J. Peterman catalog. Inside the pages of the J. Peterman Owner's Manual -- the catalog so perfect, it's not even called a catalog -- it's the past that's perfect. Step inside the white matte paper pages and you enter the world of a 1940s Tracy-Hepburn comedy, replete with witty dialogue, silver cocktail shakers, regattas, and large estates with manicured lawns.

I have ordered from Shangri-La. I have never been to Shangri-La.

A voice in my head tells me there is a plane to catch ... As I fly out the door I grab my classic horseman's duster -- protects you, your rump, your saddle and your legs down to the ankles -- and race toward the airport and certain adventure.

Shangri-La, it turns out, is in Lexington, Kentucky. From the outside, it is understated, almost plain. Then I get it: the ambience whispers subterfuge, like a classy Prohibition-era speakeasy. Only those in the know know that this is Shangri-La.

I push through the glass front door -- simplicity itself -- into a reception area that comes to life from the pages of J. Peterman's Booty, Spoils & Plunder catalog. An early 19th-century English leather sofa (The original might have sat Charlotte, Emily, and Anne side by side) rests on a red Rehamna rug from Morocco (A transfusion of primitive energy from the plains north of Marrakech).

Beyond the reception area I know I will find the place where orders are taken, where Shangri-La meets the Real World. It must be a place with atmosphere, I think, a series of small rooms, perhaps the old "New Yorker" offices from the days of Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley brought back to life.

But no. It's the same colorless, oatmeal-gray, half-wall-high cubicles you find in every office bullpen in every insurance company in every city in America.

Instead of Dorothy Parker snarling witticisms into the phone, I find young Mia, attached to her headset. Hanging on the wall of her cubicle is a jacket, Embarking (Earhart embarked across the Atlantic. She did not "pop over").

I ask Mia to describe it for me, as she might to an aviatrix manque, calling to place an order for Embarking. "Uh, a woman's khaki jacket?" she offers. Mia herself is not wearing Can Do (Why not cook suquet de peix for 16 friends, paying homage at Abiquiu). She's wearing the Uniform of the Underemployed: XL long-sleeved T-shirt, faded jeans, Nikes. She's also pregnant. Shangri-La is supposed to be Katharine Hepburn and "Bringing Up Baby," not Roseanne and I'm having a baby.

It's the same wherever I look: Tina, Credit & Returns Supervisor, is wearing a blue sweatshirt, jeans, and running shoes. The sign in her cubicle reads, "Grow Your Own Dope - Grow a Man." We've gone from "Paris Match" to "High Times."

By the time I reach the warehouse, Shangri-La is vanishing. I'm looking for neo-Marlon Brando and "On the Waterfront." Instead, it's Smashing Pumpkins blaring on the radio. At the Booty packing station, two undernourished packers are experimenting with a foam machine. Over their heads hangs a huge blue container filled with biodegradable packing peanuts. A plastic tube feeds the peanuts into the boxes. Sometimes it feeds them to the packers.

"They make a nice snack," says Pale Wan. "They're made of vegetable oil. I like them with milk and sugar."

"I heard they're good with salsa," says Concave Chest. "Try one."

Before I can descend into the culinary depths, I'm rescued by J. Peterman himself. He will see me. I'm whisked to J.'s office.

His solid wood desk is an avalanche of books and papers. Antique bistro posters from Paris hang crookedly on the wall. J. is standing with his back to me at one of two bookcases stuffed with books on motorcycles and the Himalayas, on Hemingway and shipwrecks. I'm relieved. I've been snatched from the jaws of Schenectady and deposited in Shangri-La. At last.

"What are you wearing that has factual romance about it?" I ask.

J. turns around and smiles at me over his reading glasses. He's tall, dark, and still handsome at 54; nothing like the silver-haired Ralph Lauren lookalike who plays him on "Seinfeld."

"I'm wearing a canvas shirt we did four or five years ago. The 8-oz. Shirt I think we called it. I'm especially proud of my shirts."

J. turns to fish the old catalog out of his bookshelf, but I'm gone ... thinking of another J. who was proud of his shirts:

"Gatsby took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick fine flannel ... shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily. 'They're such beautiful shirts,' she sobbed ..."

A failed professional baseball player (for a Pittsburgh Pirates farm team), who became a failed entrepreneur (beer cheese and fertilizer spikes), J. Peterman hit it big marketing clothes for people who want to buy things that make their lives look the way they wish they were. Perfect.

If that's not Shangri-La, I don't know what is.

The Spy is a novelist who lives in the Pacific Northwest.

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