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Shopkeepers for a Nation

In this review article Andrew Saint evokes the age of the great department stores - those paternalistic emporiums selling the widest range of merchandise which flourished in the major cities of Europe and America before the First World War, and of which the Bon Marché in Paris was the largest and most stylish.

There has been a rash just lately of books about the department store. It is not hard to see why. The great stores afford a rich vein of material for several fashionable topics of study like the rise of industrial consumerism, the manners and accoutrements of the mature bourgeoisie, and the development of specialised urban building-types. In addition, they offer an inexhaustible fount of anecdote about the folly and extravagance of the wealthy.

From the business angle, Michael Miller's Bon Marchéautes ). With few exceptions, the great emporia of the later nineteenth century developed from this type of establishment. But at the same time there were other equally resilient combinations of smaller shops under one roof in bazaars, covered arcades, passages, and the like; these one might call the heirs of the old market tradition and the precursors of the modern shopping mall.

Not till the 1860s and l870s, argued Hower, did the pressures towards physical integration of separate businesses and towards organisational separation of manufacturing, wholesaling and retailing coincide to produce the first true department store, incorporating near-universal provision at fixed prices in one ownership and under a single roof. Several firms, all founded earlier, developed in much the same way at the same moment: Lord & Taylor and Macy's in New York, Wanamaker's in Philadelphia, the Bon Marché from its popular claim to be the first department store.

But even if Paris was a shade behind New York, its early stores were infinitely more stylish and the Bon Marché had a sales volume of 73 million francs, employed 1,788 staff and reckoned to be 'the largest retail enterprise in the world'. This claim can probably be justified for about thirty further years. In 1910 the employees were at least 5,000 and the turnover had reached 227 million francs, a figure nearly double that of the closest Parisian rival, the Grands Magasins du Louvre, and exceeded internationally, if at all, only by Wanamaker's, thinks Mr Miller.

The genius who presided over all this, both in life and in death, was Aristide Boucicaut (1810-77), a self-made Norman who learned his salesmanship at the Petit Saint-Thomas before buying into the infant Bon Marché was enduring its first significant strike, assistants flocked in their thousands to the tomb of the Boucicauts to pledge loyalty to the long- dead proprietors.

The paternalism of the Bon Marché was in truth devoted.

In theory the Bon Marché was able to finance its expansion out of profits, or at least without recourse to public funds (one rumour had it that the Jesuits backed the store). Similarly, John Wanamaker used to boast that he built his Philadelphia and New York stores without mortgages or bonds, though he nearly came unstuck doing so.

As befits an American business historian, Mr Miller is strong on organisation, sales procedure and like topics, and conducts his reader with aplomb along the routes followed in the store by paper as well as by merchandise. He says much about mail order, in which the Bon Marché does not seem, as many stores in the great port cities of New York and Chicago did, to have gone into wholesaling itself, let alone manufacture. It preferred instead to establish purchasing houses in centres of production and then use its great influence in the market to ensure that suppliers kept their prices down.

The unusually rich archive on which Mr Miller bases his investigations into Bon Marché ideology and organisation stands him in equally good stead in his other aim, which is to set out in detail the social realities of a great Paris store in the heyday of French bourgeois culture. In one way he has to play second fiddle here, however, Emile Zola having beaten him to it by ninety-eight years with Au Bonheur des Dames (1883). This is not one of Zola's most sparkling novels, partly because the characters are overwhelmed by his eponymous department store, which looms over the whole book. But his evocation of the ambience of the great stores is irresistible, his ability to conjure up their seductive appeal in a society where everyday things were far drabber than today, inimitable:

Denise remained absorbed in front of the display at the main door. There, outside in the street, on the pavement itself, was a cascade of cheap goods, the bait at the entrance, bargains which stopped passers-by. It all fell from above: pieces of woollen material and bunting, Merino, Cheviot cloth, flannels, were falling from the mezzanine floor, floating like flags, with their neutral tones – slate-grey, navy blue, olive-green – broken up by the white cards of the price tickets. To the side, framing the threshold, strips of fur were likewise hanging, straight bands or dress trimmings, the fine ash of squirrel, the pure snow of swansdown, imitation ermine and imitation marten made out of rabbit, And below this, on shelves and tables, surrounded by a pile of remnants, there was a profusion of knitted goods being sold for a song, gloves and knitted woollen scarves, hooded capes, cardigans, a regular winter display of variegated colours, mottled, striped, with bleeding stains of red. Denise saw a tartan material at forty-five centimes, strips of American mink at one franc, and mittens at twenty-five centimes. It was a giant fairground spread of hawker's wares, as if the shop were bursting and throwing its surplus into the street.

Meticulous as ever, Zola made a detailed study of the grands magasins , especially the Bon Marché orchestra, and so forth. William Whiteley in London, by comparison, seems to have been meaner and to have cooped up his shopgirls a good deal more tyrannously.

Au Bonheur des Dames , as might be expected from Zola, trades much on the sexual undercurrents in the closed world of the department store. His bourgeois shoppers, always ladies, flirt and occasionally make liaisons with the strutting male assistants; his shopgirls go and live with their lovers to escape the constricting dormitory conditions; and his store proprietor, Octave Mouret, is a libidinous creature to whom the seductiveness of his creation and his person signifies more than profit or loss. All this seems overdrawn, partly because it is hard now to imagine how far the department store represented the avenue of escape from bourgeois convention. Despite all the restrictions, the sexes and classes mingled in a heady, colourful atmosphere: consumption, self-indulgence, envy and fantasy were encouraged and people were not yet inured to the techniques of the 'hard sell'. No wonder many 'fell'. In a section which Zola would have hugely appreciated, Mr Miller discusses the riff-raff which, at least in the minds of anxious bourgeois commentators, hung constantly about the great stores – the tarts, the frotteurs ('maniacs who follow the crowds in order to rub up against them') and above all the voleuses . Great Marlborough Street magistrates who believe shoplifting by the affluent to be a purely modern degeneracy should read Mr Miller on the voleuses. Kleptomania in the Paris department stores, he tells us, brought forth a whole academic literature including a complete book, Paul Dubuisson's Les voleuses de grands magasins (1902). Inevitably, what bothered the savants was that so many of these women were middle-class; just as inevitably, they habitually linked the problem to frustrated sexuality. The Bon Marché had a simple way with wealthy voleuses apprehended in the store; the management requested a hefty contribution to the poor and then got rid of them.

The author's enthralling picture of the world of the Bon Marché anonyme , structurally indistinguishable from other stores.

More disconcertingly perhaps, Mr Miller is thin on the physical side of things at the Bon Marché which the author is otherwise so successful in evoking.

Is the department store dying? In the traditional sense, it probably is. Even the largest and wealthiest cities seem to have room nowadays for no more than one or two of the grand, old-style emporia like Harrods, the Bon Marché or Moscow's CUM. The others have contracted, dropped their pretensions to individuality, and branched out into the suburbs. Instead of the great urban store looming over its tiny competitors along the street frontage, we have the shopping centre or mall, where the 'multiples' gather together in one great agglomeration. These centres rely on the imagination of the developer for whatever architectural appeal they may have and this, so far at least, has tended too often to be exclusively inward-looking. The huge popularity of the malls cannot be gainsaid; they are with us to stay, as Americans know from longer experience. They are really throwbacks on a grander scale to the ancient tradition of the market, bazaar or arcade, which flourished for so long until it was outfaced a century ago by the great stores, Today even the covered market seems to have taken on a new lease of life, if London's Covent Garden and Boston's Quincy Market are accurate portents, while within the old stores themselves whole counters and departments are franchised to brand-name suppliers, so increasing the sense of diversity under a single roof. If the age of the department store is over, the age of the grand bazaar seems to be back.

Besides the book under discussion it is also worth mentioning Robert Hendrickson's The Grand Emporiums, a rather gossipy history of the American department store; Peter Sturzebecher's Das Berliner Warenhaus, on the fascinating but little-known great stores of the German capital; Bernard Marrey's Les Grands Magasins, des origines a 1939 , a well-illustrated account of stores in France (the preceeding three books were all published in 1979); and Tim Dale's Harrods, the Store and the Legend .

  • Andrew Saint is architectural editor The Survey of London at the Greater London Council.

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