biography, Chicago, department stores, early 20th century, Gilded Age, H. Gordon Selfridge, Harry, history, imagination, late 19th century, London, Mr. Selfridge, non-fiction, Rose Selfridge, Selfridge, Shopping Seduction and Mr Selfridge
Lindy Woodhead’s Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge provides the context and biography of H. Gordon Selfridge, Harry or Chief to his loved ones or employees. Woodhead chronicles Selfridge’s life from his youth when both his brothers died and his father deserted the family to his death. “Mile a Minute Harry” was a dynamo who started working at age 15 and made his way to Marshall Field’s in Chicago where his innovations in display and showmanship revolutionized shopping. It’s thrilling to read of this era when there was so much change and when drive and imagination could, for some, propel them to great wealth. (That still happens but so many fields have matured and aren’t new frontiers. Certainly retail isn’t half as exciting as it was when Selfridge started.)
Selfridge became a partner at Field’s due to his own chutzpah by just directly asking the much more reserved Marshall Field, who was going to offer it down the road. But when Field’s was choosing a successor, Selfridge knew it wouldn’t be him so he left Marshall Field’s and tried to start a store in Chicago. While it failed because the city just did not have enough sales staff of the ilk that Field’s had, Selfridge did make money on selling his store to Carson, Pirie, Scott. Too young to retire, he opened a store in London, a city that was stuck in time with fuddy duddy floorwalkers who’d expel any browsers. As the itv/PBS program shows Selfridge’s was part department store, part theater (an a hell of a lot like Marshall Field’s down to the evergreen bags). I enjoyed the book’s detail and rooted for Harry as he devised creative means to make shopping fun and his store bigger and amazingly service-oriented (like Field’s was).
After 1918, when his wife Rose dies, Harry’s life starts to slide, which made reading rather sad. The store was still successful, but Harry’s proclivity for women, showgirls to be more exact, got him mixed up with such greedy, shallow women. He lavishes them with jewels and money to gamble/lose that you feel the impending financial ruin coming. It’s sad because had Rose lived longer, Harry probably would not have wound up in a two bedroom flat after selling all his property and losing most of what he built up. (I so hope the TV show takes its time running through history. The man’s life is just so sad at the end.)
Woodhead offers a lot of context including what was going on in entertainment, politics and city history for both Chicago and London. She shares what his friends and relatives thought about Harry, what allies and adversaries he had. Yet I felt there was a distance between Selfridge and me, the reader. So many questions may not be possible to answer. Harry did burn a lot of his letters when he got older. It’s rather cloudy how Harry and his wife met and what their courtship entailed. I didn’t feel I knew Harry the way I knew Proust after reading his biography. That might not be fair since Proust was a writer and probably more self-absorbed than most. Woodhead’s very thorough in her research so I grant if there was information to be had she would have found it. But perhaps Harry was the sort of life of the party that no one really knows well.