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David Nightingale: Harry Selfridge

A famous American, Harry Selfridge, opened what is now a well-known retail store, Selfridges, in London in 1909.

One of his biographers is a professor Linda Woodhead, who earned a double first class honors degree in, of all things, Theology and Religious Studies. She's an expert on Christianity, neo-Hinduism and Islam.

Be that as it may, her biography of the retailer Harry Gordon Selfridge, who was born in Ripon, Wisconsin, 170 miles north of Chicago, describes his life, from birth to his final sad penury after the second World War. That he spent 25 years working for Marshall Field in Chicago is of interest to those who may have watched the recent PBS series, and this little essay comments on Selfridge's American life.

His father had disappeared from the family when Harry was only five, and his mother, a teacher, was left to raise her 3 boys. Two of those boys died during childhood, and she raised her remaining son Harry to be independent, to have excellent manners and always to be neatly dressed. She had allowed him to leave school at 14, and after various small jobs he had become a junior bookkeeper in a small bank. He had also studied for the entrance exam to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, but failed on account of poor eyesight and being too short. He had worked in a grocery store, and a furniture factory, but by 22 was stock boy in the wholesale department of Field & Leiter. Marshall Field was a cold and unfriendly man, but Selfridge worked there for the ensuing 25 years. When Field died the old man left an estate which in today's money would be valued at over $2 billion.

Harry was appointed personal assistant to Field's retail manager by the time he was 29.  On one of his vacations -- a kind of 'working vacation' -- he visited Lord & Taylor in New York, as well as Macy's and Bloomingdale's, and came back to Marshall Field brimming with ideas, which included the retail staff treating customers as guests, whether or not they buy. By the time he was 31, he was general retail manager, and was able to move his mother and himself into a house on Chicago's Near North Side, with a maid, and a carriage with 2 horses. He was also sent on a two-month business trip to England, where Marshall Field's married daughter lived in a mansion in Warwickshire.

"Mile-a-minute Harry" -- his nickname -- ultimately asked Field if he could become a partner, and the reserved and cold Mr Field, not wishing to lose him, actually accepted. In today's money the 33-year-old Harry then began earning over $400,000 a year.

He and his mother often attended the theater. At 34 he suddenly became engaged to a one-time Chicago debutante, Rosalie Buckingham -- who had become a property developer. She became known for planning and overseeing the building of 42 spacious artists'-type houses in a suburb of the city. 

In 1903 at age 47, he lobbied Marshall Field for more recognition, such as calling the store "Field & Selfridge," but was turned down. He left.

A year later, Harry took over the lease of a beautiful building, to be his very own store -- "Harry G. Selfridge & Co, Chicago." This was 1904, but 3 months after starting he made the abrupt decision to retire. He sold the store, bought himself a steam yacht, and took up golf, which he was very bad at. Always a gambler, he also invested in a California gold mine -- which failed.

At the age of 50 he made up his mind to open a store in London, something Marshall Field had never been willing to do. A wealthy business man, Samuel Waring, became Selfridge's investment partner. They settled on a site in Oxford Street, and after many crises and disagreements, Selfridges finally opened, in 1909. With a million visitors in the first week, a top-floor patio, an in-store restaurant where women could sit and eat by themselves, and where touching fabrics and items was allowed, the London store took off.

One of his lifelong credos was "The customer is always right!" 

Oh! Would that that were still the case!

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