Little did I know when I started watching “Mr. Selfridge” on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater last year that the go-getter who opened a shocking new store in the heart of London in 1909 was the same person who first modernized and popularized Marshall Field’s in the heart of Chicago. I often shopped at Field’s as a high school and college student.
So last summer when I was on vacation with my daughter and her family in London, I couldn’t resist a stop at Selfridges.
Harry Gordon Selfridge was born in Ripon, Wis., in 1847 and lived there until age 14. After a series of jobs, he ended up at Field’s in Chicago for 25 years, working his way up to junior partner and making a fortune.
After retiring from Fields, he went on a holiday to London with his wife and discovered there weren’t any stores there to rival Field’s or shops in Paris, so bored with retirement, he decided to open a department store of his own in London. So the PBS series about his career begins as bankers tell Selfridge that his proposed store in a neoclassical building in an undesirable part of London will never succeed. He took a lot of risks, but of course, he proved the financiers wrong. His store was wildly successful and still is today.
Selfridge brought clothing out from behind counters so shoppers could look at the merchandise without having to ask a sales employee for help. He brought cosmetics out of hiding on an upper floor and put them right by the front door. He held sales, offered entertainment like displaying the first plane that crossed the English Channel, had wonderfully designed display windows, built the first indoor ladies rooms, opened elegant restaurants, supported suffragettes, and promoted the idea that women could safely shop all day without a man to accompany them. He opened a downstairs shop where middle class women could find bargains while shopping in the same store as the wealthy.
All of this is featured in the biographical PBS series. But also included is a lot about his personal life – his rocky relationship with his family, his affair with an actress and associations with wealthy, titled Londoners, the demands he made of his staff and the support he occasionally offered them.
During our stay in London, one of the “must-see” places on my list was Selfridges. It was no small undertaking but my daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter catered to my whim, and we took a bus to Oxford Street, only to find traffic was so congested that the bus was going to turn around and head back.
The driver suggested getting off and walking. So we did, meandering around for a couple of miles, not sure of where we were. But we finally got to Oxford Street, now the main shopping street in London, and walked into the very elegant and spacious store, feeling a little out of place in our rumpled travel clothes but determined to look around.
The store was huge, crowded with shoppers and had an amazing assortment of everything you can imagine. We walked around several floors checking out the enormous shoe department, expensive chocolates from all over the world, the food court, cosmetics, designer clothing, books, wine, lovely women’s rest room and finally ended up having tea at Dolly’s, named after a Selfridge friend. While waiting in line, I chatted with a man from Dubai who said his wife was there shopping while he was on a business trip.
My granddaughter was worn out from walking so far and found a comfy leather sofa in the TV section and later, the “silence room,” where she could rest.
My daughter said Selfridges reminded her of the downtown Dayton’s store when she was a child. Magical. “But now, I can also appreciate how over the top Selfridges is. It’s lovely for tea, chocolate and ice cream treats … but a little out of range for most people’s desires or needs.
“The service and employees were impeccable in their style and helpfulness. One could feel very pampered if one should choose. For the others who found it overwhelming, they offered a nice quiet, dark ‘silence’ room,” she added.
The next day, I picked up the London Evening Standard newspaper and found out that Selfridges was robbed shortly after we were there. In the busy store, six men dressed in full burkas like rich Arab women, carrying designer purses and acting like shoppers suddenly pulled out axes to smash cases and got away with dozens of expensive watches worth tens of thousands of dollars.
They fled on motorcycles – or tried to. One cycle with two men crashed near the store. One thief broke a leg, and one was wrestled to the ground by people nearby and they sat on him until the police came. Watches were strewn on the ground and a duffle bag filled with watches popped open.
Now, nearly a year later, as I’m sitting back on Sunday evenings and watching the series’ new season, I have a renewed appreciation for the store and its history regarding how the retail genius of Harry Selfridge changed the way goods were advertised and sold in London, much the way he did years earlier at Marshall Field’s in Chicago.
And it’s fun to see how Selfridges looked a century ago and remember how grand it still is today.