I haven't read a book about retailing since, I think, 1967 when I read "My Store of memories" by Rowan Bentall which was published to coincide with the centenary of Bentall's in Kingston Upon Thames.
This book was brilliant.
It starts by describing the retail environment of nineteenth century Chicago where Harry Gordon Selfridge cut his teeth working for 25 years at department store Marshall Field. I was particularly interested by the boom that accompanied the 1893 World Fair, which I have also read about in "The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson which intertwines the story of the World Fair with that of the serial killer H. H. Holmes and is well worth a read. I loved the names that Woodhead dropped, people Selfridge knew: Levi Leiter whose daughter Mary married Lord Curzon, Florenz Ziegfield whose son founded the eponymous Follies, skyscraper architect Louis Sullivan, and the father of body-building Eugen Sandow.
Selfridge gets tired of working for other people; he tries retirement and then moves to London to found his own store. His showbiz ways trump the more established retailers (such as Harrods, which began in Stepney of all places!) But as he becomes more successful he becomes increasingly distracted by life outside retailing. He becomes besotted with aeroplanes, exhibiting Bleriot's channel-hopping machine the day after the channel was hopped. He gambles, heavily. And he pursues a string of mistresses, combining passions in the heavily gambling Dolly Sisters. His life becomes connected with aristocracy and politicians and writers especially Arnold Bennett. He seduces Syrie, wife of pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome, before they both lose her to Somerset Maugham.
Then, as the Second World War starts, he is forced to give up his shop to pay his enormous debts. He becomes a shadow, an old man who takes a bus from his Putney flat to Oxford Street to shuffle past the windows he made famous.
A true tale of triumph to tragedy. Fabulous! December 2012; 261 pages
This is the book that inspired the ITV series Mr Selfridge which is returning for a second series early in 2014.
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57