Back when the world was new and there weren’t three Sadies in every kindergarten class, I worshipped the Lillian Vernon catalog. My love for the mail-order tome was purely theoretical; although it arrived in the mailbox regularly, we never ordered anything. But the pages filled with personalized things—pink-dotted linens, pencil cases, dolls, beanbag chairs, Christmas stockings—seemed wonderful to a child who had never found a keychain with her name on it. I remember in the late eighties the name Madison often appeared in the pictures, rendered in a round, admirably legible embroidered font.
That was the primary lure for me, and I’m sure for others, too. But the catalog opened my eyes to a whole realm of adult luxury beyond monograms. Hammocks. Seasonal wreaths made of artificial flowers. Eyeshades. The world seemed so full of things, both exciting and overwhelming. One item made a particular impression on me: a book cover for paperbacks. Was it needlepoint? Or am I conflating it with the hymnals at my grandmother’s church? Either way, I know the copy advertised its ability to “hide that trashy romance novel!”
This, in particular, seems now to date the moment. That a book could be a guilty pleasure is quaint enough; that it was a physical object requiring decorous camouflage is (almost) beyond remembering. Even at the time, I remember thinking that such a disguise would surely only tell onlookers that you were reading something trashy. It felt both exhibitionistic and furtive—like a book codpiece. I really wanted it.
The other day, I went online to try to find one. I thought how it would gratify my childish desires while simultaneously thwarting CoverSpy. But I still can’t find it—at least, not as it was in my memory. When I went to the Lillian Vernon Web site, among the personalized iPad covers and phone cases and, yes, seasonal decor, I found this. Times change.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily‘s correspondent.