What’s it all about?:
In 1909, the maverick American retailer Harry Gordon Selfridge opened the West End of London’s first dedicated department store to a blaze of glorious publicity – the culmination of the largest advertising campaign ever mounted in the British press.
No one understood the sex appeal of shopping better than Selfridge, and his fervent belief in consumerism as both sensual and theatrical entertainment ensured the success of his eponymous Oxford Street store.
But the ‘showman of shopping’ would eventually be undone by an insatiable addiction to gambling, extravagant mansions and even more extravagant mistresses. Thirty years after building his revolutionary store, Selfridge was ousted in a boardroom coup. The self-made millionaire died virtually penniless in 1947.
Set against the heady growth of twentieth century consumerism, Lindy Woodhead explores the rise and fall of the retail prince whose fusion of shopping and seduction has left a lasting legacy, symbolised by the towering Ionic columns of Selfridges.
What did I think?:
I didn’t manage to catch any of the recent successful TV series Mr Selfridge when it aired in the UK, but it was based on this biography by Lindy Woodhead, and when my book club picked it as May’s choice of book I was intrigued to find out more about Harry Gordon Selfridge and his famous store. Harry was a bit of a pioneer in the retail world, a ball of energy, and incredibly creative and dedicated. He worked his way up in the department store Marshall Field’s in Chicago, which was developed and innovated to such a high standard that Harry felt he could go it alone, and hopped across the pond to London, where he opened his own store in Oxford Street.
“The whole art of merchandising,” he said, “consists of appealing to the imagination. Once the imagination is moved, the hand goes automatically to the purse.”
I have to admit, I was a little disappointed by this book. I found it interesting and enjoyed the early parts of his life in Chicago, and the initial opening chapters where he developed the store on Oxford Street. However, after this, I didn’t really feel we got to know the man that is Harry Gordon Selfridge – too much attention seemed to be focused elsewhere, on other characters. While I found this added to the book in a lot of ways, I felt Harry became a background, sort of elusive figure that strides the shop floors, spends a lot of money on pretty women, and little else of note. Things like his gambling addiction are never approached with any depth, and the ending although incredibly sad and poignant is quite rushed, and almost stuck in as an after-thought. I did find Mr Selfridge a thoroughly fascinating character, and would probably be interested in watching the TV series, but I just didn’t feel the book gave me enough to feast upon.
Would I recommend it?:
Star rating (out of 5):