Apollo Magazine (UK)


Will Wiles on the future of department stores

- Will Wiles’s most recent novel is Plume (Fourth Estate).

Will Wiles on the past glories and uncertain future of department stores

Had any one ever seen such doings?’ complains uncle Baudu, the proprietor of an old-fashioned and dingy shop, near the start of Emile Zola’s novel Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise;

). ‘A draper’s shop selling everything! Why not call it a bazaar at once?’

The object of Baudu’s ire, across the street from his dark and damp establishm­ent, is a modern department store; it blazes with gaslight, and its large windows are piled with everything desirable. He is witnessing the end of his draper’s business, supplanted by the shining palace opposite, and obviously he hates it, its fripperies, its clientele and its young, perky staff: ‘No affection, no morals, no taste!’

Today, it’s department stores that are dying, their embattled business model dealt a savage blow by the coronaviru­s pandemic. Jenners, a landmark on Edinburgh’s Princes Street for years, announced its closure in January. Debenhams is closing all its remaining branches. House of Fraser, which operated many regional department stores including Jenners, collapsed in , and its remaining stores are now under severe pressure.

Most department stores originated from drapers’ businesses. Though they are now associated with premium shopping, they were at first regarded as places for cut-price luxury, exploiting the economies of scale made possible by improved manufactur­ing, transport and constructi­on. This gives them an air of technologi­cal inevitabil­ity, and helps explain why their origins are so contested, claimed by several establishm­ents in several places and several times. Whatever their ancestry, the spiritual birthplace of the department store was the Great Exhibition of . There was the template: vast spaces and incomprehe­nsible abundance, enclosed in a diaphanous modern constructi­on of iron and glass.

William Whiteley, who founded Whiteleys in Bayswater in , was explicitly inspired by the Exhibition. ‘As a youth enchanted with the Crystal Palace, he had been struck by the tantalisin­g way that goods were available to the eye but remained ultimately unattainab­le,’ writes the historian Erika Rappaport – as much as retail, Whiteley’s was situated in ‘London’s emerging culture of spectacle and display’.

Zola drew his inspiratio­n from Le Bon Marché, Paris’s first department store. The name he chose for his novel attests to the earliest public image of the department store: it was a place for women, and a liberating one. With its comforts and amenities and its public yet private spaces, it eased the path of the middle-class woman into the life of the city. It also employed young women, and on both counts attracted the judgement of the Baudus of the world. As Rappaport relates, Whiteley was attacked for not simply selling to women but also letting them linger and serving them refreshmen­ts. At Jenners, the importance of women to the business was carved into the stone of its Princes Street store, the upper

stories of which are decorated all around by caryatids.

The baroque extravagan­ce of William Hamilton Beattie’s building for Jenners shows the opulence and grandeur with which the department store clad itself, but extravagan­ce did not mean archaism. They were the successors of the arcades that Walter Benjamin called ‘the hollow mould from which the image of “modernity” was cast.’ Department stores were at the spearhead of architectu­ral innovation. Halfway through Zola’s novel, the store moves to larger premises. The new building epitomises modern constructi­on and ideas: ‘The architect, who happened to be a young man of talent, with modern ideas, had only used stone for the basement and corner work, employing iron for all the rest of the huge carcass […] Space had been gained everywhere; light and air entered freely, and the public circulated with the greatest ease under the bold flights of the far-stretching girders. It was the cathedral of modern commerce, light but strong, the very thing for a nation of customers.’

This was not true only at the start of their history. Selfridges’ Oxford Street flagship, which opened in , was designed by the American architect Daniel Burnham: a transatlan­tic Beaux-Arts palace wrapped around one of Britain’s earliest steel frames (Fig. ).

Peter Jones on Sloane Square, designed by William Crabtree and completed in , was the country’s first modern curtain-wall building. In s Germany, Erich Mendelsohn designed a succession of astonishin­gly modern curvedglas­s stores for the Schocken chain before both architect and client were driven out by the Nazis (Fig. ). In the first years of the st century, Selfridges made an effort to recapture some of this adventurou­s spirit with its Birmingham store, a shining blob designed by Future Systems.

But the historian Wolfgang Schivelbus­ch notes that the iron and glass architectu­re of the th century embodies a paradox: just as constructi­on techniques made it easier to fill capacious interiors with daylight, reliable sources of artificial light made natural light less important. The wide windows of department stores were more useful for bringing in customers than daylight – they were filled with displays. Large interiors, without external points of reference, could feel labyrinthi­ne. Boswells, the local department store in my childhood home city of Oxford, had a basement toy department that will live forever in my dreams as an Aladdin’s cave, but the rest of the store was confusing, old-fashioned and (in my mind at least) entirely interior – I had to visit it on Google Street View to remind myself that it even had a street frontage, let alone what it looked like. Boswells closed for the last time in .

The department store had already acquired a fusty, forbidding aura when the British sitcom Are You Being Served? was first aired, and that was half a century ago, in . Neverthele­ss, it was still able to innovate, serving as the ‘anchor’ of that th-century retail paradise, the shopping mall. (In her essay on malls, Joan Didion notes that they were rated according to the size and prestige of the department store they could attract.) Now many of those anchor stores are challenged. Meanwhile cities must find new uses for redundant stores. Jenners and Boswells are doomed to become luxury hotels, but the former Debenhams on Oxford Street may become an art gallery. And in Burlington, Vermont, a mall department store has been converted into a temporary high school. If the high street and the city centre are to survive, these important landmarks must find new ways to become destinatio­ns. Otherwise the city may succumb to the st-century’s version of retail modernity: the cavernous, windowless, invisible, under-regulated, under-taxed Amazon warehouse. Are you being servered?

 ??  ?? 1. Selfridges on Oxford Street, London, designed by Daniel Burnham (1846–1912) with later additions by R.F. Atkinson and T.S. Tait of Sir John Burnet & Son and photograph­ed in 1929 by Sydney W. Newbury
1. Selfridges on Oxford Street, London, designed by Daniel Burnham (1846–1912) with later additions by R.F. Atkinson and T.S. Tait of Sir John Burnet & Son and photograph­ed in 1929 by Sydney W. Newbury
 ??  ?? 2. The Schocken department store in Stuttgart, designed by Erich Mendelsohn (1887–1953) and photograph­ed in 1928, the year it opened, by Francis Rowland Yerbury
2. The Schocken department store in Stuttgart, designed by Erich Mendelsohn (1887–1953) and photograph­ed in 1928, the year it opened, by Francis Rowland Yerbury

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