Émile Zola’s novel Au Bonheur des Dames (Ladies delight) is the story of a department store: a retail palace that sells not only hats and corsets, but “aspirations, status, dreams and desires”. The novel is set in the mid-19th century, a time when cathedrals of commerce were springing up around the world, each a self-contained kingdom with its own distinct character.
For Uncle Matthew, the fearsome family man from Nancy Mitford’s novel The search for lovethe Army & Navy Stores was a home away from home, where “he knew most of the employees by name and carried his constitutionals to the magic pens.”
The Army & Navy Stores are long gone, but the sense of department stores as “magic fences” has lived on. Even now, the launch of Christmas adverts for M&S and John Lewis marks the start of the holiday season. But for how much longer?
Beset by high rents, energy costs, impractical old buildings and the rise of online retailing, the cathedrals of commerce are seeing their congregations and their profits dwindle. M&S is engaged in a planning battle for its flagship Marble Arch. Peter Jones’ owning chain John Lewis, in Sloane Square, to whose haberdashery department the poet John Betjeman famously planned to retire for the Apocalypse (based on that nothing untoward could happen there), is facing multiple unfortunate situations, including a first…half loss of £99m.
Meanwhile, Fenwick’s Bond Street store is due to close in 2024, having been sold to real estate firm Lazari Investments, whose plans for the site include “a co-working space, luxury apartments and a large BrewDog”. That branch is the latest in a series of department stores that I have considered since childhood as homes away from home. Growing up in the retail wilderness of north Kent, it was Riceman’s of Canterbury that first captured my imagination. Now a Fenwick, it used to be an Aladdin’s cave of wonders, where I found my first coat as an adult: a sophisticated navy blue PVC packaging. Later came Harrods, whose appeal included a pet shop resembling a small zoo.
Ultimately, it’s Bond Street’s Fenwick where I retreat from the West End clamor. It has a comfortable ladies’ room with smart wallpaper and a kind attendant, where last week I found a gaggle of cheerful young women changing into their party dresses before a big night out.
After a century and a half perhaps the time for department stores is up. But who, now, is going to write a novel about the dreams and longings of an online non-delivery or luxury apartment development?
Never too old
How old is too old for a Christmas stocking? As a child, waking up early to find his stocking, laden with promises at the bottom of his bed, was the best part of Christmas. My mom continued to make Christmas stockings for me long after I became an adult, and I did the same for my son, with mixed success. “Utilitarian” was his verdict on last year’s effort – a good enough excuse, I thought at the time, to stop.
And yet, now I hesitate, not so much because I think he would be disappointed, but because even now, waking early on Christmas morning, I have half a hope of feeling the magical weight of a Christmas stocking on my toes.