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lip lit: shopping, seduction and mr selfridge

Everybody knows that age-old cliché, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’. It’s a well-meaning expression. Yes, we should probably take a closer look at the book before deciding whether or not to read it. Yes, it’s better to get to know a person rather than forming opinions based on their appearance. And yes, Lizzy Bennet was stubborn and silly to hold on to her first impressions of Mr Darcy because he turned out to be a thoroughly nice guy.

Sure, the adage has wisdom at its core but, when it comes to books, I judge. I judge because I know that books are carefully marketed. The publishers have gone to a lot of trouble to design the book in a way they think will appeal to its target readership. And so I judge to my heart’s content, feeling safe in the knowledge that publishing houses match the cover to the story.

When I came across Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge I made a few judgements before I actually started reading the book. The cover image is a still from the ITV drama television series starring Jeremy Pivan as Harry Selfridge and Frances O’Connor as Rose Selfridge. It looks like the typical British period drama. The cover image was telling me, ‘Hey, if you like Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs, then this is the book for you.’ Well, the book was nothing like what the cover had promised. Turns out publishing houses get it wrong sometimes and I probably shouldn’t have judged the book by its cover.

The book is a biography of Harry Selfridge who founded the Selfridges department stores (the English equivalent of our Myers and David Jones) and revolutionised the way we shop. His life story is the stuff of movies. Born into a lower-class family, Selfridge had to work from a young age to support his family. His indomitable work ethic saw him rise through the ranks from lowly door-to-door salesperson to floor manager and chief ideas man. His life is a true rags to riches story. Then, in 1909, he opened his first Selfridges store in London’s West End.

Author Lindy Woodhead writes about the life of Harry Selfridge and the history of his department store in incredible detail. I would even say too much detail. Context is always great but a little can go a long way. Woodhead wastes pages and chapters detailing the working lives of other businessmen and the history of places like Chicago until you forgot that you’re reading a book about Harry Selfridge and start wondering if you accidentally picked up a book about how to succeed in business.

That being said, she includes some very interesting details about how Selfridge changed the way we shop. For example, he had the idea to position the perfume and cosmetics department immediately inside the main entrance and created the idea of window-dressing as an art form. He also pioneered tactile shopping. Previously, stock was displayed behind glass. Selfridge brought the stock out on racks and tables for customers to feel and inspect.

Every element of this book, if viewed separately, is fine but the book as a whole is disappointing.  The main failing is marketing. Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge has been marketed to the entirely wrong audience. The cover image (and blurb) would work if the story inside matched: hard-working hero goes from rags to riches, revolutionises shopping, lives extravagantly, marries a rich wife then has lots of affairs, gambles and eventually loses his fortune and dies in poverty. What a story! Instead, what we get is a dense but occasionally interesting history of shopping and fashion which probably would have sold well if it had been marketed to the correct readership: historians and fashion academics.


Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge is published by Profile Books.

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