6 things you won’t be ordering from SkyMall

SkyMall is the catalog that’s in the back of airplane seats.

It’s what you read when you forget to bring a book or a magazine or the free USA Today from the hotel and you’ve already thumbed through the in-flight magazine, twice.

What’s interesting is that SkyMall has built a successful business (it’s been around since 1990) selling things no one especially wants (such as a 4-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower for $199.99) in a location where it’s pretty much impossible to buy things on impulse (8 miles above Mississippi).

It’s hard to imagine buying a 28-inch garden sculpture of Bigfoot ($115), for example, if you’ve had a few minutes to think it through.

Of course, not everything in SkyMall is nutty or ironic. I wouldn’t mind having a seat from Yankee Stadium ($799.99) or a boxing glove signed by Muhammad Ali ($1999.99).

On the other hand, you have products like these:

  • Head massager ($49.95). The catalog says, “This patented Italian design incorporates Japanese engineering and utilizes acupressure to relax and soothe your problems away.” It also looks like something that’ll wind up as a prop in SyFy channel movie.
  • Toilet-seat adapters for potty-training your cat ($49.99).
  • A 6 foot-by-2 foot photo of the Cincinnati skyline, at least not at these prices ($319 unframed, $499 framed).
  • Shower head studded with color-changing LED lights, to “create a spa-like environment in the comfort of your own shower,” assuming you shower in the dark ($49.99-$59.99).
  • 6-foot replica Easter Island monolith ($995). I can imagine someone buying this as a temporary decoration for a pool party or cookout, but $1,000 is a high price for irony.
  • The Encyclopaedia Britannica ($1,395). We’re talking 32 hardcover books that are so bulky, there’s an extra $40 delivery charge. When I was a kid, my parents paid a small fortune for a set of World Book encyclopedias and annual updates, but this was before the Internet. OK, Wikipedia isn’t as authoritative as the Encyclopeadia Britannica, but it’s awfully useful (and cheaper), and it can point you to better sources online (that are also cheaper). SkyMall seems to understand this. It also sells a set of 3 different versions of the Encyclopeadia Britannica — aimed at elementary students, teens and adults — on DVD-ROM for $39.95.

You can’t judge a bookstore by its sign

Words n’ Stuff is a great little bookstore.

It’s in a place called Van Lear, in the hills of eastern Kentucky, near where I grew up.

Words n’ Stuff isn’t big, and it isn’t fancy. It doesn’t have a Starbucks, but if you’d ask, I’ll bet they’d give you a cup of coffee.

Words n’ Stuff is for people who love books. It has everything from local history to world religions, literary fiction to romance novels, new hard covers to used paperbacks.

If you go there, you’ll buy something. You can’t help it. You will.

We went there when we were visiting my folks last weekend, and we left with a memoir of Amelia Earhart’s first solo flight across the Atlantic, an Edmund Morris biography of Theodore Roosevelt, a book of essays by Jonathan Franzen and some children’s books.

We might have bought more, but Thing 2 got restless. There’s a good children’s section at Words n’ Stuff, but no train tables.

What impresses me most about Words n’ Stuff, though, is that it’s in Van Lear. Van Lear isn’t the place where you’d expect to find a great little bookstore.

Van Lear was built by the Consolidation Coal Co. in 1909 and named for a company director, Van Lear Black.

(If the name of the place sounds familar, it’s probably because Loretta Lynn mentions the Van Lear mines in her song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and in the title song of her album, Van Lear Rose, which won a Grammy in a few years ago. Dwight Yoakum mentions the mines in the song, “Miner’s Prayer,” which was on Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.)

Van Lear is unincorporated. There isn’t a downtown. Words n’ Stuff is one of Van Lear’s only retail businesses. People who live in Van Lear tend to shop and work someplace else.

I can’t find 2010 Census data for Van Lear, but in 2000, about 2,100 people lived in the bookstore’s ZIP code. Only 10% of them had bachelor’s degrees (the national average was 24%), while the median household income was $26,600 (compared with the national average of $42,000).

If you were Barnes & Noble’s or Borders, who wouldn’t give Van Lear a second look.

I think that’s worked to Van Lear’s advantage.

Flying reindeer can be scary

When our oldest was 4 and starting to wonder whether Santa was really real, we spent Christmas with my in-laws in Billings, Montana.

What’s neat about Christmas in Billings is that, on Christmas Eve, Santa’s sleigh buzzes Billings and other nearby towns around suppertime.

It’s a tradition that started in 1981 when a local aviator named Gerhart Blain hitched a light display in the shape of a sleigh and reindeer beneath a blacked-out helicopter.  Blain passed away a couple years ago, leaving his sons in charge.

So, the year we went to Montana for Christmas, Grandma and Grandpa told Thing 1 that if she went outside after supper and looked toward the rimrocks, she might see Santa.

She didn’t believe them, of course, but then we saw it, a speck of light flying above the rimrocks toward the house. Within a few seconds, we could make out Santa, his sleigh and a couple of reindeer, all outlined in lights.

I’ll never forget the look on Thing 1’s face:

Panic. Complete and utter panic.

“I’m not in bed!” she wailed, bursing into tears and trying to hide behind Sweetie. “He won’t stop!”

It’s OK, we told her. Santa’s just getting started. He won’t stop at Grandma and Grandpa’s house for a few hours. You’ve got plenty of time!

“No!” she screamed. “He won’t stop! I’m not in bed!”

We finally calmed her down and put her to bed, and the next morning, she saw that we were right. Santa came, and he was very generous.

I wish we’d taped Santa’s sleigh and Thing 1’s reaction, but we didn’t. I looked around online, though, and finally found a clip of the helicopter-powered sleigh over Laurel, Montana, last Christmas.