on 6 March 2016
I borrowed a paperback copy of this book from the library when the first series of Mr Selfridge got underway on ITV four years ago, but got rather confused and bored with the first few chapters and returned it largely unread. My interest revived during the current (and final) series of Mr Selfridge, not least because I was intrigued by the account of his purchase of Whiteleys - did he really buy it, or was it just a convenient and fanciful storyline for the TV programme?
Another sortie to the library revealed that the original printed page was now available as a talking book - perfect! Suffice to say it was so fascinating that I've been glued to the CD player for the last week and, much to my regret, have now come to the end. What captured my interest wasn't just the man himself, but the author's considerable research on the historical and political background against which the extraordinary Harry Gordon Selfridge resolutely, flashily and riskily revolutionised shopping.
It is almost impossible to conceive of the impact he would have had a hundred years ago. We take if for granted that we can wander in to a well equipped, well stocked and staffed department store and browse to our heart's content. In the UK, 'just looking' was virtually unknown at the time Selfridges came into being - and as for having goods on display where the customer could not only see them but also - heaven forfend! - touch them, it was unheard of. At the time, people knew before they went in what they wanted to buy, usually because they'd seen it in the window or because they'd bought it before. An assistant would duly pick the purchase from behind the counter, the customer paid or put it on their account, and that was the whole 'shopping experience'.
Even the lavish TV production did not really do justice to quite what a showman Harry Selfridge was. At a time when entertainments were few and there was a distinct lack of what nowadays would be called 'personalities', he put a show on daily - and the whole world was invited, not just the toffs - and it was free entry for all.
His life story is a history of 'firsts' - quite apart from the radical design of the store and his attitude to customers, he was the first ever passenger on a commercial flight; he was the first to give John Logie Baird space to display and demonstrate his televisual; he was the first to openly display cosmetics (and on the ground floor, near the doors - not hidden away at the back of the store). He was hugely annoyed when, some years later, Marks & Spencer were credited with being the first to offer staff perks such as an in-house dentist and hairdresser, good food and so forth. M&S offered two things he didn't - a staff pension scheme and camping holidays (but then the Selfridge staff preferred the skiing holidays on offer).
Largely surrounded by yes men and sycophants, once both his wife and his mother had died there was nobody to curb his wilder excesses. The twin weaknesses of women and compulsive gambling would ultimately prove his undoing. His downfall is chronicled in enough detail to make wholly absorbing reading, but without any of the salacious relish that so often creeps in to such storylines.
The purchase of Whiteleys (and yes, it really happened) is covered in full and unhappy detail, as is his tumble from retailing icon to impecunious has-been. For someone who had lived in the grandest mansions and houses you can imagine, including the vast Lansdowne House in Mayfair, ending his years in a small two bedroom flat in Putney, shared with his daughter Rosalie and her husband, must have been a bitter blow. The last chapters of the book make sad and poignant reading, not least the failure of the Selfridge board to pay for a headstone for his grave when the family had no money to do so.
This is a well written and well researched book which vastly outstrips anything the TV series has offered, however enjoyable and beautifully costumed that has been.
on 10 January 2013
Couldn't put this book down. So interesting to read how British retailing as we know it now, started in Edwardian London. I am sure the TV programmes will latch onto the 'sordid' parts of the tale but read this for the real story!
on 21 November 2009
I was unsure buying the book as I was only really interested in reading about Mr Selfridge, not the rest of the retailers and atmosphere of the time. But I am amazed at the fantastic job that Ms Woodhead has done. I couldn't wait to get through the book as it is so compelling. Further, the atmosphere and world that Ms Woodhead recreates IS necessary to the book. It's a brilliant achievement that really takes you into that world. I regretted finishing the book as I enjoyed the daily reading so much, which I think is the ultmate praise for any book! I am now going to buy Ms Woodheads book about Helena Rubenstein et al. Highly recommended.
on 6 August 2015
Having watched the TV series I thought I would enjoy this book but it actually surpassed my expectations. As a biography of Harry Gordon Selfridge I thought it was very accessible, well researched and extremely interesting. Lindy Woodhead used Selfridge's own letters and records as well as contemporary accounts of those to paint a picture of an energetic, innovative and likeable man who was sometimes strangely naive in his business dealings. It was also a fascinating account of early 20th century Britain, in particular retailing, fashion and the changing role of women. I liked the 1920s section the best. What a time to have lived (if you were rich!). The world became a smaller place with travel made easier and faster. And all those flighty women! I was intrigued by the Dolly Sisters who so enraptured Harry that he spent a fortune on them, plying them with jewels and funding their gambling addiction. Yet all these bright young things were very vulnerable as was shown by how many of them took their own lives. I thought the ending very sad when Harry's debts were uncovered and he was forced out. All in all a very good read and I will view Selfridges in a new light next time I visit!
I first started off working in a department store when I left school, and also became quite interested in the history of such shops. Today they aren't as popular as they were having been superseded to a large degree by the big supermarkets, although arguably department stores still exist albeit in virtual form, this site for instance being a virtual department store.
This book isn't just a biography of Mr Selfridge, but also to some extent a history of retail. Consumerism really started to come into its own long before department stores, but by the time of the mid-nineteenth century the department store was appearing, with Paris' Bon Marche being the largest in the world for decades to come. Selfridge himself worked for Marshall Field in Chicago where he started coming up with his ideas. Although some of the ideas thought up by these stores to entice customers in, buying goods, etc., were already formed, Selfridge refined some of these, and developed his own. By the time he was having Selfridges built he had already carried out market research and was further developing his own ideas from his previous experiences.
Mr Selfridge changed the way we shop in this country, and arguably has been a massive influence on the way the world shops. In many ways he was way ahead of his time, his first food hall could be considered as the blueprint for today's quite common usage of internet food shopping. With slightly above average wages as well as staff facilities and training he was well regarded by his staff. People that went through his store and worked and trained there also became acute businessmen in later years. As for myself, where I first worked, not only did I get obviously a discount on goods, but as well as promotion I had my expenses paid for my business studies at college. Things like this were practices that arguably we have Mr Selfridge to thank for.
Along with details about his shop, the times he lived in, we also have biographical pieces, showing Selfridge's women and his gambling. The latter meant he lost money, and with his over-generosity so did the former. Ever a showman Selfridge put on massive parties and displays in his shop and advertised on a grand scale. As you follow his progress through the book though you can see his inevitable fall from power to obscurity. From wealth and fame Selfridge died an old man, by himself and largely forgotten by the world. Despite this though, the shop still carries his name and made him immortal, as well as what he did to shopping and making Oxford Street as famous as it is today.
This is a great and fascinating book to read, it has notes and an index, as well as illustrations, and has an active table of contents.
on 25 January 2016
This book exhausted me! I couldn’t keep up with Mr Selfridge’s energy and I am very ambivalent about him as a person. I swung between admiring his creative vision, determination and innovation, and wanting to give him a very hard punch between the eyes for the disrespectful way he treated his wife and family.
Lord Woolton, with a quote from the book, sums the character up perfectly: “He had commercial vision and courage of a high order, combined alas with personal vanity and pride in being a public figure, which has ruined so many men who have lost a sense of proportion in the exaltation that comes from surrounding themselves with yes-men”. I totally agree and the author has made this clear.
The book is a very well researched, balanced mix between the history of the department store as a concept and the way people shop through time – which Selfridge changed forever - and a biography, and is a worthy aside to the TV series currently in its final season (Yes, I know the book came first). I liked how the story of Selfridge was fleshed out by reference to his beginnings, the stories of his contemporaries and the people he worked for in Chicago before coming over to England, and could see the showmanship that I think Jeremy Piven has perfectly portrayed. But for all that, I think him a sad character, really. How much more of a success would he have been with real moral fibre? I can’t help thinking that a lot of it was smoke and mirrors, actually.
And I was very, very annoyed with him. I couldn’t understand him – why he was so utterly disrespectful to his wife and family by chasing all these showgirls. What on earth did he have to prove? I realise most people are flawed, but such a public display of these real weaknesses and frailties would have made him an object of derision, whether he realised it or not.
I seriously think Selfridge had a distorted view of himself and thought himself on a par with nobility. The scenes in the TV show when his son Gordon marries a girl who works in the store is based in reality, though the children of that marriage never met their famous grandfather because he disapproved of the marriage. Excuse me? How did he start his career himself? Doesn’t such a view reveal that he secretly looked down on his employees? I like the way Jeremy Piven plays him, and I love the TV show, but I doubt very much that I would have liked the real Mr Selfridge underneath the bravura; I would have found him hard to respect, along with his “girlfriends”. This attitude makes a mockery of the real acts of kindness that he undertook. He comes across as a person of real contrasts in this telling.
I felt dismayed too that Rose’s death merited just a couple of lines on page 152. This woman was astonishing – she had to have been – and I would love to know much more about her.
Despite my annoyance with Harry, I felt sad at his demise, but ultimately, he was the architect of his own downfall. Such a shame that a brilliant man did not possess the common sense that would have made him a real success as a person.
Harry Selfridge was a truly remarkable man. Nicknamed "Mile-a-minute" Harry on account of his dynamism and ideas, he inspired and delighted most of those he met. His working life was devoted to retail and his creativity and energy transformed shopping, both in Chicago and more significantly in London's Oxford Street where he opened and developed his iconic department store. What also shined through in this book, in addition to his genius for retail, was his humanity and kindness. He was not some hard nosed entrepreneur, more of a compulsive showman who lived life to the the full. He was also a risk taker and, incredibly, most of his bravura ideas paid off too. His Achilles heel was his largesse and the mismanagement of his personal finances - so much so that the ending, when it comes, is both tragic and brutal. I had a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. That said, I also feel sure that Harry Selfridge wouldn't have had it any other way. An extraordinary life.
Although I am fascinated by the era he lived through, I was unsure whether a book about a man and his shop would hold much interest for me. I was pleasantly surprised - the book starts slowly however becomes more and more compelling - and, by the end, I'd concluded this is a really interesting, absorbing and enjoyable book. Lindy Woodhead's well researched book certainly does the man justice, and she contextualises his life well by detailing lots of interesting and relevant trends and social history happening throughout his era. Some of her digressions were less interesting, particularly in the early sections, before Selfridge's career really takes off. The best parts are those where Harry Selfridge is centre stage - even, when just reading about him, I found it hard not to fall under his spell.
I admit, I only decided to try the (audio) book because I've watched and enjoyed the TV series. But I knew that I wasn't getting just the story of the show.
If you're expecting the story of the TV characters, you would likely be disappointed. This is not that story. This is the real (I hope so anyway) story of Selfridge, his family, store and ideas, but also that of his contemporaries, peers and the fascinating social history of shops and shopping at the turn of the century.
I loved it. Selfridge himself take a while to become centre stage as the social scene is set. Then we read about his own origins and career that led to his move to London and his prominent role in retail history. I loved hearing about his wife and children (different as their lives are to their TV counterparts), but found some name-dropping confusing (lots of names of other retail magnates that I couldn't keep track of easily on the audiobook).
Lots of nuggets here, amazing details. And the man himself - both admirable and pitiable, but a visionary.
This would make an excellent companion piece to Zola's 'Ladies Delight' (also made into a TV series - The Paradise on BBC1), both looking at social history and retail at roughly the same time.
Not being a Londoner, Selfridge's is not a store I visit very often or indeed even think about. It was only after the ITV series Mr Selfridge began airing that this book came to my attention, and what an interesting little read it was. I never would have expected to become so engrossed in the history of a retail magnate, of business innovations, of a department store!
Harry Gordon Selfridge really paved the way for the art of shopping as we know it today. So many things that we take utterly for granted - promotional events, advertising blitzes, celebrity endorsements, bargain basements, floor-walkers, window displays - were all pioneered by Selfridge, first as Marshall Field in Chicago and then in his own eponymous store in Oxford Street. He became a celebrity in his own right; people would wait outside the store each morning just to see him arrive at work. And as many a celebrity before and since, he liked the glamorous life - the lavish houses, opulent parties, mistresses, jewels, yachts, casinos in France and Monaco.
After all, what is a good story with the cautionary tale, the tragic trajectory of rise-and-fall, the hero's own hubris and fatal flaw? Harry Gordon Selfridge became the victim of his own success, surrounded by sycophants and yes-men, believing in his own success and hype, ultimately dying in penury, ousted from the company that continues to bear his name.
on 9 March 2011
This is a biography of Harry Gordon Selfridge and his famous London department store. Selfridge was an American, who started his career at Marshall Field's in Chicago, "retired" at 40, then moved to London to start his own department store. He has grand plans and some of his idea revolutionised shopping - he invented the bargain basement and the whole shopping experience with art and entertainment that Selfridges does so well today, was started by him. There is a lot of interesting information in here about society in the early part of the last century, obviously about shopping habits, but also about women's place in society and the changing class system. Selfridge led a glamorous life and there is as much about his various lady friends as there is about shopping, and whilst it offers an interesting insight into the lifestyles of the rich and famous of that period, by the end of the book, I still don't feel that I know Selfridge himself that well.