- - Friday, December 16, 2011

THE WORLD OF DEPARTMENT STORES
By Jan Whitaker
Vendome Press, $60 268 pages, illustrated

They key word in the title of this beautifully and intelligently illustrated book is “world.” Indeed, it might just as well have been called “Department Stores of the World,” for its focus is on the worldwide nature of this merchandising phenomenon. The great stores of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles get their due, as do those of Paris (where they began), London and Berlin.

But a special feature of this book, with its incisive text reflecting its author’s knowledge and perspicacity, is its spotlight on magnificent department stores in more recondite locations. Everyone knows about Macy’s and Harrods, but this book not only lets you enjoy revisiting them, but introduces you to such splendid exemplars as Stockmann in Helsinki and Myer 1,000 miles to the south in Melbourne. As Jan Whitaker, who has written evocatively about the American department store and that unique feature of earlier 20th century American life, the tea room, comments in this global tour d’horizon:

“Historians agree that the three key factors in the birth and development of department stores were urbanization, mass transportation and mass production, but all three had to be present at once and working together. Not all of the world’s major cities had an environment conducive to department-store growth. Beijing, for instance, the largest city in 1800, was not the kind of place where a department store would flourish - not in that century or even in the next. In contrast, Paris, another of the world’s largest cities in the nineteenth century, offered a highly nourishing environment for department stores.”

So it was no accident where and when these mercantile powerhouses flourished. Certainly they catered to the high end, but for them to prosper they needed a prosperous and growing middle class. They were as good a barometer of the bourgeoisie as you can find.

It is not surprising then to see vast spaces once devoted to such bourgeois artifacts as men’s and women’s hats, not to mention gloves, corsets and fur coats. Wearing the pelts of dead minks and sables was not politically incorrect in those days, but it is fascinating to learn from Ms. Whitaker that “Certain types of merchandise were particularly controversial, notably meat, liquor, and books. … Many stores avoided displaying underwear in their windows, and [London’s] Selfridge’s sold rouge and lipstick under the counter before World War I.”

Liquor, she informs us, was a particular problem in the United States, what with the burgeoning temperance movement that eventually culminated in Prohibition. Meat, apparently, was considered unseemly: Pictures of vast numbers of shot game birds still with their heads on make one understand why some thought so, but the desire for the delicious meat they provided tended to overcome such squeamishness.

The problem with books was, apparently, that the attitude toward selling them was so sacerdotal that doing so alongside more humble products “devalued and degraded them.” A more down-to-earth reason was that publishers feared correctly that department stores would undersell the list price. Shades of today’s online merchandisers - how little some things change in the world of merchandising. And when we learn that in Weimar, Germany, stores actually produced their own cheaper editions of popular works, it is easy to understand the rivalry publishers rightly felt.

A quote from Oscar de la Renta on this book crystallizes the enduring allure of these great emporiums: “Since my visits as a child to La Opera Department Store in Santo Domingo, I have believed that the best department stores are merchants not of clothing or cosmetics, but of dreams.”

How many children over the decades and now almost two centuries have had their first view of the wider world holding their mother’s hand and looking with wonder at the myriad offerings? Their immediate dreams might be centered in the toy department, but the sights that meet their wide-eyed gaze will fuel their dreams, and if they are fortunate, their reality in the years to come. This gorgeously produced book serves as a kind of magic carpet into the past glories of the department store, but also into the world of possibilities they encompassed.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.