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Gary Jordan Burke flinched. He almost always flinched when Joyce got to screeching. It was an automatic response to her high-pitched, overly-loud voice. You'd think the woman thought everyone was deaf.
"Go downtown and get some more paper scrap. We're nearly out."
"Yes, dear." Gary suppressed a sigh. Still, he'd best get downtown and do as Joyce wanted. If he didn't she'd get into his garage again, looking for non-glossy paper. She mostly left the glossy stuff alone, but any thin sheet of print was in danger around Joyce. Of course, so were ear drums.
Gary spent a lot of time in the garage. He almost had to, considering how crowded the house seemed. Heck, Joyce and her screech were a crowd all by themselves, but add in visits from kids, grandkids and assorted relatives—well, the place was a mad house half the time.
"A man can't hear himself think around here." It had been bad enough, back before the Ring of Fire. It had gotten three . . . no, six . . . no, twelve . . . well, a whole lot worse since then. Mom and Dad were living with them now, since they'd sold their house when they ran out of money. That was bad enough. But the worst was Aunt Muriel. Oh, Lord . . . Aunt Muriel.
The woman never, ever quit talking. Talking in the same kind of screech Joyce had. Even so, she did pay rent. Which was more than Mom and Dad did. Mom and Dad just assumed they'd be welcome until their dying days. Which they were, really. It was just that money was so damned tight. And feeding everyone wasn't getting any cheaper. And Gary really, really didn't like thinking about the property taxes and the way they were probably going to go up.
So, going out after paper scraps wasn't all that much of a chore. Well, it was, but it was worth it to get away from the screeching and protect what was left of the reading material in the house. Which, come to think of it, was mostly what people had used just before the paper scraps. He remembered old stories about the Sears and Roebuck catalog, back before it became the Sears catalog. How people would go to the outhouse and use the Wish Book twice. Now, that's recycling.
Gary froze. The Wish Book. They called it the Wish Book and everyone in America had one. Almost, anyway. Now that he was thinking along those lines, he remembered other stories told about the Wish Book; people ordering whole houses out of it and life-saving things. Teachers teaching children to read using it. Talk about advertising penetration. He'd been trying to figure a way to make some more money for a long time. And now he thought he'd found one. The big problem was that he didn't have a lot of money to put into the idea. Which meant he needed to talk to Mom and Dad. And Muriel.
"So, I don't see any reason to wait, Aunt Muriel. In fact, we shouldn't wait. Somebody else might beat us to the punch if we do."
Muriel watched him squirm for a few moments. It had to have been hard for him to do this. Gary Jordan was a proud man, one who'd done well by Joyce. But times were hard and getting harder, at least in this household. Too many people, not enough income to support them all. "I'll do it. And I'll get your parents to invest, too. It'd be downright foolish to sit on what they got for the house, planning to leave it to you and Duncan when they croak. It'd make a lot better sense to put it into the business. Instead of the Sears and Roebuck catalog, why couldn't it be the Burke catalog? Running a mail order business out of the garage ought to work."
Well, that meant the garage would be lost as a quiet haven, Gary knew. But he needed to do something. So he'd have to sacrifice. Who wasn't, these days?
"First thing we need is a catalog."
Muriel shook her head. "First thing we need is some inventory. We ought to be able to buy in bulk and get a discount. And then we need an engraver, to do the pictures to go in the catalog. Then we get it printed up and sent out."
"But there are already such things," Ursula Reifsniderin said. "There are seed catalogs and catalogs of other things as well." Ursula was a refugee who had needed a place to stay. She acted as primary translator for the family as well as general help and instructor in the German language and German ways. She was still learning English, but was learning it a lot faster than they were learning German.
"You mean they already have the Sears catalog?" Gary asked.
"I don't know about this Sears. I don't know that word, but merchants have listings of their products they send out."
That got them into a discussion of what would make their catalog unique, which led to a discussion of what had made it unique in the original time line. It took some working out and some research. What they finally determined was that it was a combination of things. The Sears catalog had been a general merchandise catalog with a lot of products, which made it distinct from the more specialized catalogs. It had also been published in a time when transport had gotten much cheaper. Which made Gary and Muriel nervous, but pleased Ursula because the same thing was happening around the Ring of Fire with the new roads and the railroads getting started.
The first catalog was a simple thing. Not very big at all. Not too fancy, either.
But it was an actual book, well, booklet, bound with thread and it did work. In some ways, it worked too well. Orders poured in from as far away as Jena. More than they had the stock to fill. Which caused its own problems, including letters of apology and refunds when requested. Each of which cost them money. And some of the suppliers jacked up the price for products they had already ordered. They ended up selling some stuff at below cost because of that. In spite of all the headaches, they made a profit that first year. Not as large a profit as they'd have liked, but still a profit.
Muriel kept the books. The woman was a whiz with numbers and she had all day free, unlike Gary and Joyce. They kept their day jobs. Had to keep body and soul, together, after all. Mom and Dad helped, too. Most of their inventory was small stuff, so no one had any trouble lifting the various items and packing them up.
The hardest part of it all was reading the handwriting on the orders. Ursula Reifsniderin was a treasure. She was the one who took the packed up orders to the post, using the red wagon that had been around since the kids were little.
Ursula looked in the mirror and grimaced. She wasn't fond of her face. She had survived some rough times in her life and they had left marks. Grantville had been her salvation and the Burkes her blessing. She remembered a line, she couldn't remember where she had read it or heard it, but when she thought of Burkes it always came to mind, "Who is your family? The ones who put you out or the ones who took you in?" The Burkes were her family now and the Ring of Fire her fatherland. In general, it was a good family and a good fatherland.
She abandoned the fruitless examination of the mirror and set to work. They needed a bigger cart than the little red wagon.
Johan stopped what he was doing and straightened up, grabbing at his back when he felt a twinge. "Yes, Anna? What is it now? And have you finished your chores? Picked up the bread, as your mother asked?"
Papa's back hurt a lot. Anna repressed some concern about that. It did tend to make him a bit irritable. "Papa, look at this. A man dropped a whole stack of them in the village. I've been reading it. It says here that you can order all these things from Grantville. I think Mama would love one of these." Anna pointed to the drawing.
Her papa grunted and took the book. He began flipping through it. The words "Pain Relief" caught his attention. "Dr. Gribbleflotz' Little Blue Pills of Happiness. Says here they're good for all matter of ache and pain."
"The little box is pretty, too." Anna hesitated. "It couldn't hurt to try them, could it?"
"Perhaps not. And you're right. Your mama would like that."
"I don't believe it for a minute," Hans said. "All of it is too cheap. It must be a scam."
"It came from Grantville," Freidrich pointed out. "And Pastor Schultz says they do things differently there. He's even been there."
"The whole village knows that." Hans' voice was full of scorn. "Like you could not know that, the way the man talks about it." He flipped another page. "Hm. Ursel would like that."
Adele flinched at the shrill shout. Children. You just can't keep them quiet. "Shh, child, shh. Not so loud please. What is it?"
"It was so exciting, Mama. An up-timer came through the village. In one of their pick-up trucks. And he had a box of these. Then he gave me one. Look."
Adele shook her head even as she reached for the pamphlet her son held out. "Child, child, child. Your curiosity is going to get you in all sorts of trouble one of these days." She began flipping through the pages, looking at the drawings. "Oh. Papa would like one of those, don't you think?"
"What about the 1633 catalog?" Joyce asked. She and Gary were in bed watching TV, just like before the Ring of Fire. Of course, the movies were all reruns and the news was about broken armies, new business, and, of course, the weather and what the little ice age meant to their future.
"What about it?" Gary mumbled, not really paying attention. She could tell. Sometimes it seemed the only way she could get his attention was to screech.
This time she used an elbow to the ribs. "How are we going to handle it? Last year we bought the stuff in advance and ran out a lot. We need a better system."
"Oww. What sort of better system?"
"I don't know, but we have to come up with something. I'm not sending out any more 'Sorry, but that product is out of stock' letters if I can avoid it." She gave him a look. "Aside from what it does to our profits, it hurts our reputation."
"Joycie is dead right about that," Pop Burke said. He always had been pretty partial to Joyce. "We took their money, then we had to give it back. It cost us to do that. What we really need is a way to do Collect on Delivery, like they did back in the old days. Didn't do that much anymore, not even up-time. Everyone was using credit cards and checks."
"I don't know if we can work that part out," Gary admitted. "Maybe we can. What we'll have to do, though . . . I think, maybe . . . is get the suppliers more involved, get them to give us better discounts for one thing. Freight costs . . . man alive, those are terrible. But we need guaranteed stock, no more of this 'oh, we're out of that.' And, considering how well we did do, I think a bigger, better catalog will help a lot."
Muriel nodded. "That last one was pretty plain. I bet it got lost in the mail half the time. We need a better cover, something that stands out. Color if we could get it."
"Whoo hee." Pop chuckled. "And pretty girls modeling underwear?"
Mom swatted his arm. "You old coot."
"Hey!" Pop rubbed his arm. "I don't see why not. They did that, even back in the old days."
"I don't see why there shouldn't be pretty girls. And good-looking guys, for that matter," Joyce said. "Whatever it takes to sell stuff. And we've got some good products. Life-saving products, even, now that they've figured out the household fire extinguisher. Adolph Schmidt's gold-plated flatware ought to sell like hotcakes, too. We ought to be able to double the pages this time."
"Me? To model?" Ursula's hand flew to her face. "Oh, no. Not me."
"Herr Gruber will leave that out, Ursula." Joyce smiled. "Back up-time they airbrushed out all sorts of defects. I mean, you'll never convince me that they didn't airbrush the Playboy bunnies right, left, up-side-down and sideways. You're the right size and the right build. We'll put your hair up pretty and get you a real nice outfit. That won't matter."
"But . . . "
"It's keep it in the family, or we have to hire someone else. And the more we can keep it in the family, the more money we get to keep."
Ursula reluctantly agreed. Joyce had the right of it there, as much as she hated to admit it.
"I'm sorry, Herr Kruger. But unless you can guarantee a supply of your vise grips at a consistent price, they won't be in the Wish Book this year." Gary Jordan Burke was learning to play hard ball, or at least he was trying. Herr Kruger was one of the people who had jacked up prices last year, which left them selling his product for less than they paid for it. It hadn't been entirely his fault; he had had to put on extra people to fulfill the demand. On the other hand, he wasn't the one that had taken the loss.
"But you won't guarantee to buy them. That is hardly fair."
"You're right. But having your product in our book is very good advertising." Gary shrugged. "It's your choice."
"No, Herr Schmidt, it's not about the flatware." Joyce smiled at the rather beefy down-timer. "We would like to include the Higgins Sewing Machine in our Wish Book. The way it would work is we would forward orders received to you, then receive a commission on sales you made through our Book."
"How much of a commission were you thinking about?" It went on from there and took several weeks to work out all the details. Of course, Gary and Joyce were working out the same issues on other products at the same time. It depended on the product and the company as to how things worked. Sometimes they bought stock outright, sometimes they acted as agent for other companies. Sometimes their agreements were exclusive, sometimes not.
"Oh, I really like this section." Muriel flipped through the pages of the 1633 Burke catalog. "That was clever, naming each section that way."
"Working Man Blues for the overalls is cute, I suppose." Mom sniffed. "But I'm not at all sure about that Mail-Order Bride section."
Pop cackled. "Keep your wife as happy as a new bride." Then he snorted. "But that sure didn't work the time I bought you a new vacuum, if I remember right."
Mom threw him a look. "You old coot. That was our twentieth wedding anniversary. You coulda made some kind of effort."
"Mail-Order Bride?" The caption brought Paulus Sandler to a brief halt, then he saw the rest of it. "Keep your wife as happy as a new bride. Ha! As though that can happen." He started to toss the book back on the table, then caught sight of the cover. "Hmm."
He looked at it again, then flipped through it a bit more. "Hmm." He looked at the cover again.