Selfridge Upends London Retailing


Harry Gordon Selfridge and his London Store





By Megan McKinney


The London Selfridge’s was gorgeous inside as well as out. Although the art deco detailing of the elevators would not be installed until 1928, it was typical of where the store was heading. 

Almost immediately was Harry’s sense that cosmetics and fragrances were soon to become entirely acceptable by even the most proper women and, after a trip to Paris, he moved his to the front entrance. Not only have they remained in that spot for more than a century, but there is scarcely an upscale store in the Western world that did not follow.

Selfridge’s roof towered above Oxford Street and has had many lives. Miniature golf was one phase.

Another was as a venue for fashion shows. But almost always, during fair weather, there has been at least one restaurant for al fresco dining.

When Harry decided to open a bookstore within Selfridge’s, he dubbed it the “biggest bookstore in the world.” Maybe. The 60,000 copies of the Book of Common Prayer with velveteen covers were almost immediate sell-outs. He also took Selfridges into the publishing business, producing such  tried-and-true volumes as the World Atlas and The Holy Bible, as well as dictionarys and a complete set of the works of Shakespeare with great success.

The man who invented window shopping through exterior windows in Chicago kept it going with windows facing Oxford Street—especially his Christmas windows. Here is one from a recent year, with a plug for Selfridge’s on its giant glass snowball. Harry would not disapprove.

Harry was always looking for a stunt, but something “spectacular that would have all of London flooding his store.” One Sunday when he and his family were out motoring in Kent, they were finishing a late breakfast when they overheard other guests talking about the French aviator who had just completed the first powered crossing of the English Chanel from France to England. 

This was nearly  two decades before Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic and was definitely “spectacular”.  Harry was instantly off to Dover, where he made a deal with the pilot, Louis Blériot, and arranged to have the plane delivered directly to Oxford Street.

Harry Selfridge, the first airplane to cross the English Chanel from France to England, and its pilot, Louis Blériot. Guess who’s in front.

Below: The famous plane on display at Selfridge’s. Harry got his wish for “all of London” to flood his store on that one.

The spirit of Harry  Gordon Selfridge crept back into the store recently with a three-story Louis Vuitton ”townhouse” built within Selfridge & Co. with the floors connected by a revolving glass elevator in the center of the image below.


Author Photo: Robert F. Carl