“The customer is always right,” he said.
Publisher: Profile Books
First Published: 1st October 2007
Date Reviewed: 3rd April 2014
After many years at Marshall & Field in Chicago, Harry Gordon Selfridge crossed the Atlantic with his family to create a department store in London. At the cutting edge of retail, Selfridge’s was successful. As time went on Harry bought out more locations, but spent the money on women and gambling. His decisions away from retail would define his later years.
Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge is a fairly short book that details Selfridge’s creation, the effects of war on an already changing society, and, of course, the social changes that came with burgeoning technology and increasing gender equality. Straight forward in its approach, the book lacks excitement and bias, but it does fall off the beaten path sometimes.
The beaten path in question is that of the subject – whilst Selfridge is Woodhead’s focus, the author does pause the narrative many times to profile a ‘bit player’ of the story, and although the title may suggest the book is about more than the American retailer, the profiling is irrelevant and filler content. People are introduced with a full background history after which it turns out their relation to Selfridge is minimum and short-lived and there are dozens and dozens of people mentioned who, in contrast, aren’t detailed at all. (These latter people aren’t often famous or known to us nowadays, which means that unless you have a background in retail or a great knowledge of the early 20th century, the names will mean little.) Those who play big roles in Selfridge’s life are detailed, understandably, but other than that you can’t help wondering if Woodhead shouldn’t have just written a shorter book.
And sadly for Selfridge, the amount of content not relevant to him means that there is simply not enough of the book dedicated to him. Perhaps Selfridge’s life was too straight forward to warrant a lengthy text, either way it does at times seem as though he has been pushed to the sidelines, a strange coincidence given what happened to him in life.
What is best about the book is surely its general style. Woodhead is largely unbiased; the book lacks opinions and is more of a report, even more so, perhaps than it is a biography. There is no particular flare to the writing which can make it dry, and there is little humour beyond the quotations and paraphrasing, but there is a lot here that will be of interest to modern historians, social historians, those who enjoy shopping, and technology enthusiasts. Woodhead includes a handle of suppositions but they are never expanded upon as opinions of the author, they are only furthered if it was a common view of the time. This is an account of what happened and little more.
And whilst it may also wander from the beaten path, the updates as to social context are informative and set the scene well. The stories of war, the gambling tables, the changing fashions that stores had to cater to, provide another dimension to the book and show just how swift modernity arrived once it had started. The changing attitudes to women both by way of clothes and the way women worked are interesting, and as Selfridge was very much in favour of women being able to shop by themselves, to go to restaurants and so forth – even if there was a personal benefit to him in sales – the theme of gender and equality is returned to many times.
The book ends abruptly; there is no epilogue. Anyone looking to known who owns Selfridge’s today or simply what happened after the initial change in management will need to research for themselves.
Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge isn’t fast-paced, a book that is hard to put down, or written in your typically juicy style to match the juicy contents, but it will leave you with a good knowledge of the man, the times, and the views. Recommended most obviously to those interested in retail history, the book will find a place in the minds of a great many readers for its historical appeal.
April 14, 2014, 8:04 pm
This book doesn’t really appeal to me, although the historical tidbits in terms of society and culture at the time sound interesting.