'Mr. Selfridge': The man who invented retail therapy

Jeremy Piven plays Harry Selfridge in a PBS series

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Jeremy Piven

Jeremy Piven as Harry Gordon Selfridge in the PBS series "Mr. Selfridge." (March 28, 2013)

Until recently, the Vera Wang bridal shop in Singapore imposed a non-refundable $482 fee to try on dresses. And last month a health food retailer in Australia posted this notice on its door: “As of the first of February, this store will be charging people a $5 fee per person for ’just looking.’ The $5 fee will be deducted when goods are purchased.”

So much for welcoming the casual browser. But these kinds of bully tactics were par for the course more than a century ago. It took pioneering retailers such as Harry Gordon Selfridge — a galvanizing figure who made his bones in the late 19th century at Marshall Field’s in Chicago — to radically change the way stores and their patrons viewed the shopping experience.

After amassing considerable wealth in Chicago and perhaps struck with a bit of middle-aged wanderlust, Selfridge migrated his considerable charm to London, where he would open his eponymous department store in 1909, an operation that exists to this day. He revolutionized the way Brits spent their money, and it is this portion of his story — that of a gambling, womanizing retail kingpin — that is the centerpiece of “Mr. Selfridge,” the British period drama starring Jeremy Piven that begins its 10-week run Sunday on PBS.

Selfridge was the product of a vastly different era. So were the journalists who wrote about him. Consider the lead in this 1941 Time magazine piece; it would never get past an editor today: “Pert, imaginative, Wisconsin-born Harry Gordon Selfridge is, as he likes to say, the only man ever to buy a business from five Jews and sell it to seven Scotchmen at a profit. The business was Chicago’s Schlesinger & Mayer department store, sold to Carson Pirie Scott & Co. Harry Selfridge also made $1,000,000 from Marshall Field & Co., went to England with his profits. In 1909 he amazed Londoners with his magnificent effrontery by setting up a department store on Oxford Street, running it in the breeziest American tradition.”

The new TV series (which has already been renewed for a second season) aims for that same breezy sensibility, even if it never quite lands. “Mr. Selfridge” aired in the U.K. earlier this year on ITV — the network home, not coincidentally, of “Downton Abbey.” In the U.S., “Downton Abbey” has been a proven draw; 12 million viewers watched the third season finale last month, making it the highest-rated drama on PBS ever. If TV audiences were willing to swallow the terrible plotting and soapy performances of that series, “Mr. Selfridge” (which earned good numbers in the U.K. despite its uneven quality) has a decent shot at cracking the American market, as well.

Selfridge, though, is hardly a household name in the U.S. Even Piven, to whom I spoke last week, said he hadn’t heard of the man prior to signing on; he did know of the store (which is not formally involved with the show) and said he frequents the flagship location — designed by Daniel Burnham, by the way — despite the fact that he has no endurance for shopping: “It’s like, I love those pants — do I really have to try them on?” I asked if he gets a discount. “I get a little discount, and they’re incredibly kind to give me a discount, yep.”

In Britain, Selfridges may be a deeply entrenched part of the marketplace, but few could tell you anything about its founder before the show aired. There appear to be just two comprehensive biographies about him, one that is long out of print and the other a more recent publication released in paperback this spring called “Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge,” by Lindy Woodhead.

“I asked a librarian at the Chicago library why she thought that Harry was so little known,” Woodhead said by email from her home in France. “After a pause she said: ‘I guess because he left us’. I found that very interesting. America lionizes its business-achieving heroes and heroines, but doesn’t seem to take too kindly to them leaving to move to other countries.

“Likewise, England at that time viewed Americans with some suspicion. Too modern. Too over-enthusiastic. Perhaps too egalitarian. Harry and his achievements are remembered through his excess rather than his success, and I hope that my book — and of course the wonderful television series (albeit a dramatization!) — will go a long way to restoring his rightful place in the ‘Retail Hall of Fame,’ where I believe he belongs.” (Woodhead is an advisor on the show, as well.)

The series takes place in the early 1900s, during Selfridge’s time in England (where he spent the latter half of his life), but his Chicago story is pure Americana, a self-made man rising from humble means to become a department store honcho.

“He turned shopping into theater,” is how Piven put it. And perhaps it is fitting that the Evanston-raised actor, who frequently makes reference to his roots in Chicago theater, would play the title role. Selfridge was a force of nature, and one imagines he possessed all that winning manic energy of Piven’s Ari Gold on “Entourage,” minus the hostility; Selfridge was far more interested in treating people well. Good manners meant good morale, which meant good business. The customer was always right — a phrase he likely coined.

Most of his big ideas — decluttering store windows and lighting them at night; putting merchandise out on display; launching the first-ever bargain basement; installing phone lines throughout the store — were first put into practice at Marshall Field’s, where he climbed the ranks from stock boy to junior partner. (He would go on to marry Rosalie Amelia Buckingham, cousin to the Buckinghams who donated the funds for Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park).

According to Woodhead, during these years Selfridge was “bursting with ideas and always ready to express them.” But: “He was a showman and, because of this, was not particularly regarded by Mr. Field as being a merchant. They had an uneasy relationship.” When Selfridge eventually cashed out his shares, he went into business for himself and bought a Louis Sullivan building a few blocks south on State Street, with its distinctive curved corner entrance, that he would ultimately sell to Carson, Pirie, Scott. “The store didn’t work for him,” said Woodhead. “It was too small in scale, too near to Marshall Field’s, and one can only assume he was suffering withdrawal symptoms. He sold out quite quickly.”

London was next. Per Woodhead: “He knew it was the biggest, richest and most powerful city on earth at that time, and had a rather naive belief the British establishment would welcome him.”

It didn’t take long to wear down their resistance. By the time he traveled back to Chicago for a visit in 1911, the Tribune described his arrival thusly: “Harry Gordon Selfridge, who has kept the staid merchants of London agog for two years or so by his methods of conducting a department store, was rushed into Chicago yesterday morning. He spent a busy day meeting many of his friends who knew him when he ran a big store on State Street, will go to church this morning and just have time for luncheon before he catches the 2 o’clock train for New York, where he will set sail on Wednesday for England.” The piece then listed every minute of his itinerary. Literally.

10:15 a.m. -- Stepped from train at Union Station, was met by nephew Buckingham Chandler.

10:17 a.m. -- Interviewed by sundry newspaper reporters.

10:20 a.m. -- Posed for photograph.

10:23 a.m. -- Jumped with daughter and nephew into a taxicab and rushed away to visit friends.

After the death of first his wife and then his mother, (a close confidant who lived with his family in London), Selfridge saw his fortune dwindle. He gambled (and lost) frequently and spent lavishly on opportunistic showgirls. Not that he minded. The man liked his nightlife. But by the time the Depression hit, he was toast — and ultimately forced out of the business that he built. He died in penury in 1947.

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