In 1909, the largest department store in London’s West End, designed and built from scratch, opened in Oxford Street in a glorious burst of publicity. The mastermind behind the façade was American retail genius Harry Gordon Selfridge: maverick businessman, risk-taker, dandy and one of the greatest showmen the retail world has ever known.
His talents were to create the seduction of shopping, and as his success and fame grew, so did his glittering lifestyle: mansions, yachts, gambling, racehorses – and mistresses. From the glamour of Edwardian England, through the turmoil of the Great War and the heady excesses of the 1920s and beyond, Selfridges Department Store was ‘a theatre with the curtain going up at 9 o’clock each morning’. Mr Selfridge reveals the captivating story of the rise and fall of the man who revolutionised the way we shop.
I am trying very hard to read more non-fiction books so with every batch of books I get from the library at least one of them has to be non-fiction. The trouble is that the non-fiction books still take me a long time to read. I was at this Selfridge biography for a solid three weeks and even through it was really interesting I found I could only read a little bit at a time.
Nevertheless I have finished it and I am glad I saw it through. Selfridges life is like a window into another time and culture, where an affluent middle-class was coming into its own and where reckless abandonment in French Casinos was swiftly followed by ruin and tragedy.
Some of the events from Selfridge’s life could have been pulled straight from a soap opera; he was at the first World Fair in Chicago which launched, among other technological attractions, the first ever Ferris Wheel! He became an unofficial patron of the Dolly Sisters; twins who were a dancing sensation for their perfectly synchronised movements. Once Selfridge began footing the bill they gave up on dancing and spent their time travelling from casino to casino, playing at the tables and dazzling everyone by being dressed head to toe in diamonds. Reading these chapters reminded me very strongly of the musical Chicago and I have a strong suspicion that Velma Kelly was based on the Dolly Sisters.
Selfridge was a fascinating man; a visionary, a dreamer. He had an eye for detail in the dimensions of his store and the products on display but was cavalier in his watch of the finances, which ultimately was his personal undoing. I loved reading about his innovations at the store from the decedent window displays to presenting a red rose to every lady who ordered an afternoon tea at the restaurant, and the parties he threw could have perhaps given even the Great Gatsby a run for his money!
What made the book a little hard to get through were the long lists of names of people who attend the various events and balls of the time. A lot of the names meant nothing to me and some of the background information about some of these people didn’t really go anywhere. I also lost my way a bit trying to follow the political changes of the time, although that is probably down to my fuzzy understanding of politics in the 1920s!
Reading the biography has made me want to try watching the TV Series again. I did start watching the first season ages ago but found it a little slow. Now I want to see how it covers things like the Dolly Sisters and the roof-top parties complete with ice rinks and the innovations and additions Selfridge continued to make to the store until he was booted out by his own board in his 80s.
Warning: the last couple of chapters are really heartbreaking, so be prepared! It’s a sad final note on an extraordinary life but what follows the closing chapter is an afterword full of industry experts today acknowledging the great legacy of the man who brought show business and enchantment to the retail world.