Mr. Selfridge: The American Behind Britain’s Great Department Stores

Visit Britain

London is famous for its department stores. Nothing seems more quintessentially British than popping into the Queen’s grocer, Fortnum & Mason, for exquisite foodstuffs, sampling elegant fashions at Liberty or marveling at the opulence of Harrods.

But this nation of shopkeepers has a guilty secret. The helpful, welcoming atmosphere today’s shoppers enjoy was largely pioneered by an upstart American, Harry Gordon Selfridge. The PBS show “Mr. Selfridge,” airing Sundays until May 19, tells the story of how the Wisconsin-born merchant founded a brand that took London by storm.

Arriving in Britain in 1906, Selfridge found retailers dry, dusty and mostly unhelpful. When he opened his shop, Selfridge & Co (now Selfridges), in 1909, he encouraged customers to touch and feel merchandise, or marvel at exotic jewelry and perfumes in sparkling glass cases.

Most important, he coined the phrase “the customer is always right” and laid on attractions like rooftop gardens, a library, mini golf and even an all-girl gun club to pamper shoppers. (There was also a double-glazed Silence Room for anyone overcome by it all).

His Oxford Street store exhibited Louis Blériot’s plane shortly after its first flight across the English Channel. It hosted the first public demonstration of moving-image television, by Scottish inventor Logie Baird, in 1925. Sadly, the rooftop gardens closed during the Second World War and didn’t reopen until 2011. But the success of Selfridges spurred its rivals — some of them decades older — to compete.

London’s other historic department stores have learned Harry’s lessons well. Fenwick of Bond Street, which began selling hair accessories in 1891, now has five floors of luxury brands. Meanwhile, over in Knightsbridge, two of the city’s greatest stores sit virtually side by side.

Harrods, the biggest department store in Europe, started out as a tiny tea and grocery store in 1849. Now, it famously offers such eye-wateringly expensive items as a solid crystal bathtub ($790,000) and diamond-encrusted golf clubs ($160,000), amid high Victorian splendor.

Just up the road is "Harvey Nics" (no one calls it by its real name, Harvey Nichols). Although it was founded in 1831, years before its grand neighbor, Harvey Nics attracts a younger crowd of jet-setters eager for the latest international fashions. These days, even the venerable Fortnum & Mason, whose Piccadilly store first opened back in 1707, feels bright, modern and airy. It’s a lovely place to grab a traditional cup of tea between purchases.

Whatever you do, don’t miss the chance to visit Selfridges. The striking neoclassical building has had a makeover or two since it opened the doors in 1909, but the atmosphere is just as warm as it ever was. And if you don’t spot Jeremy Piven and the rest of the cast filming the second season of “Mr. Selfridge,” you can at least console yourself with a round of mini-golf in the newly renovated rooftop gardens. Harry Gordon would be proud.

by Mark Harris

Photos: “Mr. Selfridge,” airing on PBS Masterpiece, stars Jeremy Piven as the American who changed British department-store history. (Photo courtesy of ITV for Masterpiece)

Queen Elizabeth II, Camilla, Duchess Of Cornwall and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge viewed a diamond jubilee themed cake while visiting Fortnum & Mason, the royal family’s official grocer, last year. (Photo by Leon Neal - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

A glorious ice cream sundae is among the offerings at Harrods. For London’s high-end department stores, the shopping experience is as important as the merchandise. (Photo by Juliet White/Visit Britain)