Merry Mail-Order


By Stephen Knapp

“Freed from the drudgery of changing the trash can liner, you’ll have plenty of time to entertain.”

The approach of Christmas brings harassment and dread to many excellent people. They have to buy a cart-load of presents, and they never know what to buy to hit the various tastes; they put in three weeks of hard and anxious work, and when Christmas morning comes, they are so dissatisfied with the result, and so disappointed that they want to sit down and cry. Then they give thanks that Christmas comes but once a year.

—Mark Twain, Following the Equator

By the time you read this, it will be too late.


You’ve already sent lousy gifts to people who deserve, or at least expect, better.

Out of time and ideas, you caved in to convenience and mailed away the CD, the T-shirt, the decorative soaps, the (wince) gift card, each one a thoughtless flop even now waiting in cheer-crushing ambush beneath somebody’s Christmas tree.

Don’t beat yourself up about it. The wretched fact is that anything people want they’ve already bought for themselves. Your unreasonable task was to get them something they want that they don’t know they want, and you choked, and now every time your friend/relative/associate looks at you in ’22, they’ll see 10 ounces of grotesquely over-packaged off-brand chocolates.

Next year, don’t be a hero. It’s okay to ask for help, and there are holiday helpers who specialize in high-impact gifting. Their mail-order catalogs are filled with upscale “lifestyle” products more accurately described as expensive novelties. But they’re really good novelties, unexpected, and unexpectedly cool, the very definition of things that people don’t know they want.

The Sharper Image has always styled itself a dealer in high-tech, and in 1977, the Detroit-based retailer got a running start peddling “innovative gadgets” like “jogging watches.” You can still find personal timepieces in The Sharper Image’s catalog, including a Smart Watch for Kids that comes with a 1.5-inch color touchscreen, a rotating camera that shoots video and stills, three preloaded games and 128MB of memory. It’s available in little boy blue or daddy’s princess pink, costs $79.99, and it’s what tech-forward tots want for Christmas.

Imagine how much more honorable the time-honored tradition of carving the roast beast will be when you fire up the Mighty Carving Knife, a two-fisted Husqvarna look-alike featuring an “ergonomic handle” and safety guard. “Add some excitement to the table,” exhorts the Sharper Image, “as you pull the trigger (of) a powerful electric slicer that gives you the feel and precision of a chain saw.” All that excitement and precision can be yours for only $99.99.

When families gather, there’s never enough ice, but you’ll be chill with the Rapid Beverage Cooler. Retailing for $99.99, this miracle of the refrigerative arts harnesses the amazing properties of ice to produce cold wine in six minutes, cold Snapple in three and a half minutes, and a cold 12-ounce can of Mountain Dew in just 60 seconds. For dessert, gather ’round your new tabletop Electric S’mores Maker, which lists for $79.99 and scorches marshmallows to messy perfection using electric heating elements in place of flames. These days more tech-ish than techie, The Sharper Image is still a major player in the lifestyle game.

Hawking a wide variety of “luxury gifts” from “curated collections,” New Hampshire-based Brookstone was founded in 1965 by an enterprising tinkerer with $500 and a dream. Today, that dream includes the Self-Sealing and Self-Changing Trash Can, which for $119.95 will open its lid when it sees you coming, seal the trash bag when full, and automatically install a fresh bag when the full one is removed. “Yes, it’s that easy!”

Freed from the drudgery of changing the trash can liner, you’ll have plenty of time to entertain. Ranging in price from about $40 to more than $140, Brookstone offers a broad selection of whiskey decanters that look like guns, like snakes, like chickens, like motorcycles, like pretty much anything besides a whiskey decanter. As a good host, you’ll want to seat your guests on the Jaxx 6, a $279 beanbag chair about the size of the Death Star.

Tuckered out by all that entertaining, you’ll sleep it off even better with a little help from the Brookstone Sleep Sound Mixer, a scaled down audio board retailing for $99.99 and offering a symphony of soothing noises, a palette of soothing nightlight colors, and the soothing opportunity to fiddle with it endlessly in search of its most soothing settings. Come the dawn, wake up with the Glowstone Smart Mug, a $179 bone china cup that maintains beverages at a piping-perfect 145 degrees for one hour with each wireless charge.

But maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Any discussion of posh paraphernalia should rightly begin with Hammacher Schlemmer, a humble hardware store that pretty much invented the mail-order “unique and versatile” giftables industry way back in 1848. “Guaranteeing the best, the only, and the unexpected for 173 years!”

And what could be more unexpected than waking up on Christmas morning to find the Seven Person Tricycle ($20,000), the Robotic Bartender ($25,000), the Flying Hovercraft ($190,000), or the two-seater Submarine Sports Car ($2,000,000) under the tree? High-profile, big-ticket items aside, Hammacher Schlemmer is better known for carrying unusual toys like the Water Bullet Battle Tank ($59.95), the Hammacher Schlemmer Three Passenger Electric Ride On Train ($299.95) and the arcade-ready Jurassic Park Pinball Machine ($4,500), unusual health products like the Chemical Free Insect Bite Reliever ($49.95), the full-body, COVID-resistant Protective Personal Pod ($19.95) and the Virtual Therapist’s Luxury Massage Chair ($10,000), and a virtual United Nations of unusual imports like the Hong Kong Bubble Waffle Maker ($44.95), the Child’s Luxury Turkish Cotton Robe ($69.95), the Genuine Handmade Irish Shillelagh ($89.95), the Damascus Steel Pocket Knife ($99.95), the Scandinavian Wooden Door Harp ($129.95), the Genuine Icelandic Sheepskin Rug ($124.95), the Peruvian Sleek Shawl Collar Alpaca Topper ($199.95) and the Italian Electric Tomato Press ($399.95).

Nobody you know needs The Sharper Image’s Digital Cigar Humidifier, but it would be more useful than another faux walnut photograph frame. Nobody you know has been dropping hints about Brookstone’s HD Video Surveillance Robot Vacuum Cleaner Mop, but at least it’s not slippers. Nobody you know has ever asked Santa for Hammacher Schlemmer’s Tiki Torch Speakers, but they beat bayberry candles by a mile.

Nobody wants any of that stuff, but they will when they see it. And while it’s possible they’ll lose interest in their new oddity by New Year’s Eve, it’s a sure thing they’ll greet it with a grin on Christmas morning, and remember it long after.

There are 375 shopping days until Christmas 2022.

It’s not too late.