Thursday, July 19, 2007

Magazine's shelf life has no boundaries

Magazine's shelf life has no boundaries
Every month, about 5 million National Geographics are printed. And many people seem to hoard them. For years, for decades. Why?
By Carlos Alcalá - Bee Staff Writer

After reading in The Bee that a GI in Afghanistan wanted National Geographic magazines for Afghan kids, Susan Maxwell Skinner called to volunteer to donate hers.

Skinner, a Carmichael photographer, had a few dozen, but other callers -- and there were many -- had up to 50 years' worth of the yellow, perfect-bound magazines.

People seem to hoard National Geographic, and there are a lot of magazine issues out there.

Every month, about 5 million National Geographics are printed. That works out to more than 2,000 tons and around 4,000 cubic yards of magazines.

Every month.

Some of them wind up in the dump, but many more accumulate on shelves in dens. Or in boxes in the garage. Or piles in the attic.

In many cases, the collectors don't read them, but they keep them. For years, for decades.


"It's heartbreaking to throw them away," said Skinner. "They're too nice."

The pictures are by some of the world's best photographers and the printing is top-notch.

Skinner's accumulation dates to the 1980s, but her parents in New Zealand have a collection dating back to the 1950s, she said.

"What we're going to do with them when my parents pop their clogs, I don't know," she said.

People may save them because "their issues are almost like books," said Lars Perner, a consumer psychologist.

Kit Yarrow, another consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, agrees with that assessment, but thinks there's more.

"It's special," she said. "Readers feel an intimacy with this magazine. It's emotional."

For many owners, even recycling seems too cruel a fate, so they hold onto magazines, waiting to put them to use.

Capt. Michael Harrison's effort was a rare opportunity and readers responded, though some backed off when they found it would cost them $8 to send a box of 30 or so issues. Most opted to keep their magazines stockpiled.

As a result of this phenomenon, the National Geographic Society's Web site has a FAQ (frequently asked questions) section with this query:

"Q. I have a collection of old National Geographic magazines that I would like to donate to charity. Where should I donate them?

"A. You are not the first to ask us for advice about giving away old National Geographic magazines. It seems no one likes to throw them out, and we are gratified that this is so. But eventually people do run out of room."

Joe Demarco, who also has an accumulation, tried to give them to library sales. "Nobody wanted them," he said. "I don't think any used bookstores sell them."

There is a little hope.

"We'll take 'em," said Scott Williams, who coordinates used book and magazine sales for Sacramento's Central Library. And, he says, they sell pretty well.

National Geographic is "timely, yet timeless," said magazine expert Samir Husni, trying to explain the hoarding. An issue from two decades ago -- or longer -- can be as fascinating as last month's.

The attachment to the yellow magazine is so cultish, said Husni, that when an issue was published with a gold cover, it generated complaints.

"Where is my yellow spine?" was the beef from subscribers accustomed to displaying shelves of unbroken yellow, Husni said.

There's only one other magazine that has created a similar bond, said Yarrow.

Playboy. People -- mostly men, we suspect -- hoard those issues, too.

Playboy and National Geographic have something in common: photos of bare-breasted women.

In National Geographic, it was generally women in countries where such undress is the norm. The photos are from an anthropological, albeit Eurocentric, perspective.

Even so, said Husni, "for a lot of people, it (National Geographic) was the first time they saw a picture of a naked woman."

Aside from such photos, however, the two magazines have little in common, and there's a big difference that consumer psychologist Yarrow discovered when she looked them up on eBay.

Old Playboys were selling for much higher prices.

National Geographic was mostly listed at a buck or two per issue, and with few bids. Recently, you could find an August 1968 issue listed for a penny. No bids.

We love it, but won't buy it. Not on eBay, anyway.

Given that there were once 10 million or more National Geographics going out each month, it's probable that a lot of storage is taken up by beautiful, glossy pages.

Which suggests another possible consequence of the baby boomer bulge. When all the boomers grow old and give up their houses for retirement places -- or when they "pop their clogs" -- what will the heirs do with all those yellow magazines?

Husni had one answer: "Time for a garage sale."

Good luck with that.

No comments: