For 64 years, it's been a U.S. mailbox staple, offering home remedies, kitchen wares and long-forgotten brands in hopes of helping consumers solve life's little problems, from spider veins to unwanted nose hair.
But recently, the Vermont Country Store catalog made a surprising addition: sex aids.
The inclusion of an "Intimate Solutions" section selling six-speed vibrators, instructional sex videos, "pleasure gels" and an all-natural "arousal cream" has prompted cancellation notices, irate letters and calls, and a sort of identity crisis for the staid New England brand, which has never been accused of being racy before.
"It's hard to read the customer letters," said Cabot Orton, 39, wincing as he sat in the store Tuesday, talking about the response. His father, Lyman, is the store's proprietor. "It makes me a little ill, really."
The catalog started by Lyman Orton's father as a 12-page mailer in 1945 is now a $100 million-a-year business with retail locations in two Vermont towns. Its stock in trade: "purveyors of the practical & hard to find."
You'll find heavy-duty toenail clippers and Vermont-made suspenders, Lanz of Salzburg nightgowns and pine tar soap, waterproof handbags and Buster Brown socks, all presented with a dose of Yankee sensibility.
Orton, a spry 67-year-old with a country storekeeper's sense of what sells and what doesn't, says the idea of helping older folks keep sexually active was his.
"We never got any letters saying we want this. This was a sense, because our customers are a certain age and sex is below the surface in the world we deal in. I said 'Look, let's see if our customers respond to this.'"
Beginning with last summer's catalog, Vermont Country Store began offering:
- "Fun Over 40: Spice Up Your Love Life With These Professionally Produced DVDs," a set of instructional videos showing middle-aged couples demonstrating how to overcome age-related challenges in bed. Price: $29.95.
- Several kinds of personal massagers, including one that touts: "Explore a New World of Sensual Pleasure for Both of You" with the $89.95 Synergy Pleasure System.
- "Easy to Use Impo Aids," which are rings to aid male performance. Price: $29.95.
"It certainly would seem at odds with their wholesome, good-old-days approach," said George Hague, senior marketing strategist for J. Schmid & Associates, a marketing research companies in Mission, Kan., that works for mail-order houses. "Anytime you stray beyond what is your marketing niche, there's always a concern."
Orton's three sons, who are partners in the business, were leery at the prospect of adding something blue that might make customers see red.
"We thought he was crazy. We thought he was out of his mind," said Cabot Orton.
The customers responded, alright — some with their pens, some with their pocketbooks.
"The intimate massagers are certainly not what will uplift the youth of America but instead will lead them to be perverted pleasure seekers," wrote one customer, asking to be removed from the mailing list. "Please rethink what you are doing."
"I am one of the women who respects her God-given human femininity," wrote another now-former subscriber, in a longhand letter. "These items are offensive to me."
Orton figures he got 600 letters, most of them critical. Some called the offerings "pornographic." Others told Orton his father wouldn't have approved.
"You'd think I suggested that we sell nuclear devices to terrorists," Orton said.
In fact, the "intimate solutions" items have been big sellers, though the company won't give sales data or say which items are moving the fastest.
"It turns out they wanted these products, and they spoke with their wallets," Cabot Orton said.
Yet the family debate about whether it's helping or hurting Vermont Country Store is ongoing, says 36-year-old Eliot Orton.
"We're still wrestling with it," he said.
"The sons should have prevailed," said Steve Enloe, 52, who was browsing in the Weston store with his wife, Julia.
"It doesn't fit with the store's image," she said.