Mar 05

Rolodex for memories, or the next millennial must-have? – Chicago Tribune


I ran across my old Rolodex the other day, its black cover grimy with dust, the old cards gray with age, the ink on the cards faded, and the sight of this ancient artifact made me wonder: Does anybody use a Rolodex anymore?

To which anyone younger than 35 might reply: What’s a Rolodex?

Once upon a time, before smartphones and computers, before Outlook and Google, before we reduced friends and acquaintances to “contacts,” working people logged names, addresses and phone numbers onto index cards in a little rotating file.

That’s right, kids. You had to turn that knob by hand. Flip through cards with your fingers. Heavens to Betsy, you even had to know how to alphabetize!

Can you imagine having to work that hard just to call someone?

On the path to full-fledged adulthood, getting a Rolodex was right up there with getting your first paycheck. It made you feel efficient and worldly, and the fatter your Rolodex got, the more important you felt. Showoffs kept more than one.

Back in those days, when half of humanity wasn’t just a Google search away, losing your Rolodex — or having it stolen — was like losing a box of diamonds.

A friend tells the story of a colleague who, in that dark age, quit his job on the spot after an argument with his boss. Before marching out of the office forever, however, he stormed back to his desk and grabbed his Rolodex.

Not every Rolodex was alike. (The word is a trademark, by the way, a fusion of “rolling” and “index.”)

There were big ones and little ones, ones with covers and ones without. Most, but not all, twirled.

Not every Rolodex user was alike either. Rolodex neatniks typed information on their cards. Rolodex slobs scribbled. I was among the latter group, as I was reminded when I stumbled on mine the other day.

Despite its disarray, as I flipped through my Rolodex for the first time in 15 or so years, the past wafted forth, like a genie from a bottle.

There were sources for stories I’d forgotten I’d written, friends who had switched jobs and homes many times since our Rolodex days.

There were the dearly departed: The editor of my first newspaper. A friend who died in a car crash. My mother.

There was Jon-Henri Damski, a columnist for the Windy City Times who wrote about gay issues back when that was risky. Johnny “Red” Kerr, the great basketball player and commentator. Kurt Vonnegut. All gone now, but in my Rolodex, their old phone numbers live on.

Every name that passed by revived an experience, a relationship, which is why I haven’t gotten rid of the Rolodex, even though I’ll never call most of those people again.

But back to the question: Does anybody use a Rolodex anymore?

When I asked around my office, several people of an age I’ll call “vintage” said they still had one, somewhere, in a drawer or a box, but didn’t use it.

A 42-year-old said he’d skipped the Rolodex phase and gone straight to a PalmPilot, a device that now seems equally quaint.

When I spot a Rolodex on someone’s desk, I imagine it’s there as homage to the past, like a manual typewriter, but a 38-year-old in my office swears she still uses hers.

“We do get requests,” says Don Schmidt, who runs Atlas Stationers in the Loop, a shop founded by his grandfather in 1939.

But not a lot of requests. The store, which sells a small modern version of the file, is likelier to hear from longtime Rolodexers in search of replacement cards, which are hard to find. Some sizes have disappeared entirely, Schmidt says, though others show up periodically on eBay.

Schmidt dates the decline of Rolodex to the 1990s and the beginning of the digital revolution. He keeps his own in his “office museum” at home.

But the old has a way of becoming new again. There was a time when Schmidt thought his old-fashioned stationery business might not survive a digital age. But, he says, sales are stronger than ever, helped by millennials who love journals and greeting cards and can be fascinated by a fountain pen.

“Millennials are doing a backlash against digital,” he says.

Who knows? Rolodexes could become the next hip accouterment.

And if they do, I’ve got some empty cards to sell, for the right price.

Source: Rolodex for memories, or the next millennial must-have? – Chicago Tribune

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