The Yellowed Pages

Doug Collins - Monday, February 22, 2021

If you told a child today that, twenty years ago, every household had a printed directory of every resident and every business in their town—and that the directory weighed upwards of ten pounds and was dropped on people’s doorsteps once a year with a satisfying “thunk,” they would think you were crazy. 

No way. 

It’s true, however. If you wanted to call the Smiths across town you would pull out that directory, look under “S,” and find the number. Sure enough, when you called the number, Lucius Smith would pick up on the other line and the two of you would be talking about the weather, the box scores, and what not. 

If you had a friend with a popular name, then you might struggle knowing who to call. Was it Smith, L., on Orange Blossom Pike or Smith, L., on Hideaway Ridge? Folks with popular names used to get a lot of wrong calls: “No, baby, this is Laura Smith on Orange Blossom. You want my cousin Lucius on Hideaway.” 

A month later, when you wanted to call old Lucius up again, you would pull out the directory and look up his number again. You might remember he lived on Hideaway. Or, you might call Laura again, by accident, which was awkward. 

After awhile, you might write Lucius’ name and number in your personal address book if you got tired of leafing through the ten-pound directory. Most people would leave their personal address book by the house phone. Some would take it with them, just as you please, in case they were out and about and wanted to reach someone by pay phone. 

Over time, with folks moving, getting married, and dying, your personal address book would become a crossed out mess. You might go to the stationery store to buy a new one. Or, you might live with it. People would use the “W, X, Y, Z” section for random notes and scribbles. Nobody had friends whose last names began with “Z.” “X”? Forget about it. 

In need of a roofer? Well, you would pull out the directory again, flip to the back of the book to the pages dyed yellow, and go to “R,” where you might find AAA Roofing. 

Some fools might look under “S,” for shingles, but they would be stymied by the list of shingle wholesalers doing business in their town. Even the phone company can’t help people like that. 

Sometimes the phone company would try to throw them a lifeline by adding a helpful cross reference such as, “see also: roofing.” But, let’s be honest: people who need a roofer, but decide to go look for shingles instead, are going to be living with that leak for awhile. 

All the service businesses back then were called AAA something. The owners realized that most folks dialed the first number they saw for a category and the phone company listed businesses alphabetically. 

Don’t bother looking for the ZZZ Roofing Company, even today. Nobody ever got around to calling them. They went out of business long ago. 
The trauma of starting ZZZ Roofing and failing miserably left such trauma in the service industry that it will be a hundred years before some intrepid soul tries it again, even though the alphabetical listing of businesses no longer plays a role in whether one enjoys commercial success. 

Zaleski Car Parts of the world, rejoice. It’s safe to come out, now. 

The past is a poor predictor of the future: the way things are now are not necessarily how things are going to be. A thriving ecosystem of social media marketers, software firms, and search engines has displaced the printed phone directory, growing the size of the pie beyond anyone’s imagination twenty years ago. Research firm eMarketer predicts that search ad spending runs around $60 billion per year in the U.S. 

Dream your dreams. They might come true. 
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