March 8, 2009
The third-generation family mail-order business—"purveyors of the practical and hard to find"—has long specialized in forgotten brands and remedies, from Buster Brown socks to Packer's pine tar shampoo to Walnettos. Now it's the go-to source for magic wands, arousal creams, flexible "impo rings" and other items designed to help aging Americans overcome challenges in the bedroom.
Catering to a 55-and-older customer base, the store's catalog brims with magnifiers, pill-minders, arthritic solutions and sensible cotton apparel. But if you think that's all there is to retirement, you haven't been watching the Viagra commercials very closely.
Proprietor Lyman Orton, 67, recognized the niche. "As a merchant, I'm always thinking 'What might our people want to buy from us?' " he says. It crossed his mind that customers might be taken aback, but Orton forged ahead, to the chagrin of his three grown sons, all partners in the business. "Sex doesn't disappear as you get older," Orton says. "Let's just get over this."
So he added a line of cordless "massagers," an assortment of erotic gels and creams and a set of instructional DVDs featuring older couples who are absolutely not playing bingo. The new items aren't being marketed aggressively—to find them on the Web site, you have to click on the "Apothecary" tab and then select "Intimate Solutions." Customers don't have to ask for a plain brown wrapper, either; their items will arrive in a box that virtually screams ankle-length muumuu.
Still, some people were appalled. Hundreds wrote to complain or to demand that the catalogs stop coming to their homes. A business famous for trading in hard-core nostalgia was suddenly accused of trafficking in pornography. After sifting through the mail, Orton's sons began to sound a little like middle-schoolers whose newfound knowledge of the facts of life led them to the uneasy realization that their parents, um, you know. ("It makes me a little ill, really," one son told The Associated Press.)
But sales have been brisk. Orton won't divulge figures, but he did allow that the new items were selling somewhere between the Dr. Sloan's liniment and the Lotil ointment. Better than average, that is. He's thinking about putting a warning on the catalog cover, advising faint-hearted customers to tear out a page or two before thumbing through. But the items are staying.
Orton, who pens regular "editorials" that appear in the catalog and online, is a tireless advocate for aging well. One of his recent essays is about escorting his 98-year-old mother to her 80th high school reunion; another is about the first time his youngest son beat him to the top of Vermont's Terrible Mountain on a bike. "I do not propose we deny aging, but rather embrace it," he writes.
That's what we thought we were doing when we mailed back that membership invitation from the AARP —hey, we wanted the discount—but the next thing you know we were getting mail solicitations from funeral homes. It wasn't what we had in mind.
Now, though, we can't wait for our next catalog from Vermont Country Store. We could use some Tangee lipstick, a mustard rub and a gallon of maple syrup.
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