The Death of Gadget Worship


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America’s supply of executive nostril foliage, kept in merciful check for the last three decades, is on the verge of rapid proliferation: The Sharper Image has filed for bankruptcy protection and is closing half its stores, and suddenly it may be much harder to obtain titanium-enhanced nose-hair trimmers that can prune even the most stubborn nasal bristles like a chainsaw going through limp spaghetti. Are we sure we’re doing the right thing by passing up that creepy $299 animatronic Elvis — “Press ‘Alive’ and Elvis comes to life, checking you out and talking you up” — that could help keep the company afloat in its hour of need?

The Sharper Image is fun to mock, but if consumers have finally decided to dump the pioneering gizmo peddlar like an aggressively tasteless plasma sculpture that no longer enchants the way it once did, we should at least give the enterprise its due. Before Wired magazine took gadget porn to new levels of salaciousness with its Fetish page; before New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell popularized the concept of coolhunting; before pointing at some shiny new object you’d love to buy became the preferred mode of self-expression for thousands of amateur bloggers and a business model for an only slightly smaller number of Internet professionals, Sharper Image founder Richard Thalheimer was printing up his catalogs and telling affluent young men with more dollars than sense how a $70 telephone shaped like a duck could enhance their lives.

In the 1970s, you couldn’t just point at a photo of, say, home Geiger counter and have it magically show up on your doorstep the next day. But when Thalheimer started dabbling in mail-order sales in 1977, the industry was rapidly evolving. More people were using credit cards. More companies were utilizing toll-free numbers. FedEx and UPS were speeding up delivery times. Mail-order catalogs have been around since 1744, when Benjamin Franklin, no doubt forseeing a day when the world would need an inexpensive but effective way to sell $2,000 shiatsu massage chairs, invented them. But for many individuals, especially lazy impatient men who didn’t have time to complete an order form and write a check and lick an envelope, or wait around for weeks on end for the Post Office to deliver their $249 bulletproof vest, mail-order shopping was virtually as tedious as regular shopping.

These impediments to impulse buying were disappearing, however, and just as crucially, the American attention span, never too structurally sound to begin with, was being undermined by the remote control and dozens of new TV channels. People were still culturally programmed to turn pages, but magazines and newspapers, with their relentless phalanxes of print, seemed increasingly out of touch with the times. In contrast, mail-order catalogs enticed readers with a far more palatable ratio of eye candy to text. In the late 1970s, when Thalheimer started publishing his catalog, there were approximately 3,000 or so other catalogs in print. By 1984, industry experts put the total number at 7,000.

But even amongst all that competition, The Sharper Image catalog stood out. Mail-order had always been a strong channel for novelty items you certainly didn’t need and previously hadn’t realized you wanted — but an entire catalog devoted exclusively to super-expensive novelty items you certainly didn’t need and previously hadn’t realized you wanted? That was new.

Even if a known entity like, say, Hugh Hefner had tipped you off to $2,495 suits of armor, or a security-enhanced $1,195 briefcase capable of delivering a 2,000-volt shock to nosy office rivals, or $895 executive chairs made out of repurposed race car seats, you might have balked at the notion. The fact that Richard Thalheimer, anonymous founder of some company that was little more than a logo on a catalog, was presuming to be your trusted lifestyle advisor only increased the iffiness factor.

And yet the iffiness factor only increased the appeal of these unlikely transactions. Was someone really making $239 Uzi replicas? Or $2,400 robots that could fetch your newspaper and vacuum your living room? Or $4,000 two-man submarines and $139 pogo sticks? There was only way to find out, hotshot.

The Sharper Image rode the same tech curve as Microsoft, Apple, Dell, and countless other digital-age behemoths, and yet never quite enjoyed their success — the market for cutting-edge nose-hair trimmers, it turns out, was never quite as big as the market for cutting-edge PCs and laptops. And yet who better prepared us for the world of eBay and iPods, the world of relentless novelty and sleek techno-overkill and disembodied talking Elvis heads with “multiple infrared vision sensors, stereo speakers, 10 precision motors with motion-capture facial animations” and the ability to sing “Hound Dog” and “Heartbreak Hotel” on command? Consign The Sharper Image to the Goodwill bin of history if you must, but at least break out your $299 Margaritaville Frozen Concoction Maker and drink a toast in its memory before you do. • 17 March 2008