Recent Comments

    ‘Add to Cart’

    By Jewelle Gomez–

    Long ago, when I lived in Manhattan, I sublet my apartment for several months while I moved in with a lover in the Bronx. A friend, Stacy. sublet my place and agreed to periodically bring me my mail. Okay, yes, I was so uncertain about this experiment that I didn’t want to change my mailing address!

    As a sister lesbian, Stacy was aware of how tentative impetuous romantic arrangements could be and was very understanding. In the 1980s, everything was still so covert and many lesbians yearned desperately to belong with/to someone, so we tended to commit quickly just because, say, we both liked to watch Beauty and the Beast. There was even a standard joke: What do lesbians do on their second date? Rent a U-Haul.

    After meeting up with the intrepid Stacy lugging a shopping bag full of my mail order catalogues, I relieved her from the duty, asking her to ditch the catalogues and to forward any letters. The catalogues went into the trash bin (there was no recycling yet). Away went hours of fantasy: L.L. Bean, Soft Surroundings, Vermont Country Store, West Elm, and Harry and David! Young, heterosexual women had bridal magazines to fuel their imaginations; lesbians had Hammacher Schlemmer and its amazing gadgets.

    When I tried the experiment again, I gave up my Manhattan apartment; but a year later it became clear that neither of us were ready for co-habitation. Within weeks I moved so quickly, so efficiently that I didn’t begin to grieve until I came home from work the first time and opened my door to my solitary cat. I cried, mourning all of the hope that had gone into that U-Haul.

    This is where Lillian saved my life. She was not a new girlfriend, although I spoke of her as if she were. The Lillian Vernon catalogue was/is a potpourri of mostly small items, many of which cost under $15 plus shipping. So began my retail therapy.

    I wasn’t making a huge salary, but weighed against other expenses—a bottle of wine, a movie alone—she was a low budget extravagance. Every other day I ordered something from Lillian—monogrammed mugs (2), Halloween lights (2), pen organizer (1), salad spinner (1), flamingo salt & pepper shakers (1 set), cat toys (innumerable), etc. And every other day I’d come home to a small gift on my apartment door step. When done continually, each gift was a surprise, raising those important serotonin levels. Others might mend their broken hearts with exercise or therapy; I used presents.

    Years later I discovered that there really was a Lillian Vernon (1927–2015), who was iconic! She escaped Nazi Germany with her parents and learned her enthusiasm for entrepreneurship from her father. Once married, wondering just how many toasters a bride needed, she used her wedding gifts to start her mail order company at age 24! Her catalogue business was the first company founded by a woman to be traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

    But she wasn’t just a successful capitalist; she was also progressive. She supported charities like Meals on Wheels and Democratic political activity like Emily’s List and Barack Obama’s campaign. It is no wonder her little inexpensive widgets helped heal my heart!

    Thirty years later and finding myself in a pandemic, shut inside my home (with a delightful spouse of 28 years), I turned to shopping online to relieve the monotony of nowhere to go. Despite knowing that at my age there’s little I actually need, I too joined the legions: COVID-19 masks (27 so far), t-shirts (7), pants (3), books (10), holiday lights (3), etc. I promised myself to pass on one item for every one purchased!

    But the phrase “add to cart” plucks the same joyful strings as did the sight of small packages on my doorstep decades ago. Every year on Lillian Vernon’s birthday (March 18), even though her company belongs to a conglomerate now, I buy something from her online catalogue to salute her persistence and remember how tiny things can help mend a heart. 

    Jewelle Gomez is a lesbian/feminist activist, novelist, poet, and playwright. She’s written for “The Advocate,” “Ms. Magazine,” “Black Scholar,” “The San Francisco Chronicle,” “The New York Times,” and “The Village Voice.” Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @VampyreVamp

    Published on August 26, 2021