The Washington Post

New book tells the history of department stores

The legendary food halls of Harrod’s, the ever-inventive windows of Barneys New York and Moscow’s Soviet-era GUM all get their due in a new coffee table tome.  Jan Whitaker, author of “The World of Department Stores” (Vendome Press, $60) digs into the history of these consumer institutions, exploring their beginnings, how they’ve endured and what lies ahead.

View Photo Gallery: Manhattan storefronts bring Christmas stories to life with elaborate designs and animated scenes.

The book is filled with interesting tidbits about the evolution of retail. Before department stores marked prices on merchandise, store clerks would quote different prices to customers based on their presumed ability to pay.  It was also understood that a shopper would go straight to the item she intended to buy and then leave the store at once or risk being insulted by a shopkeeper. That’s a far cry from the first modern department stores, which were conceived as sheltered, pleasant environments for customers to browse without being compelled to buy anything. But the fact that you could stay there all day, eating lunch, getting a hair cut or having a manicure almost certainly led to a purchase or three.  

 Illustrated with photos of window displays, catalog covers and the Gilded Age architecture of institutions from Philadelphia’s long-gone Wanamaker’s to Paris’s still-strong La Samaritaine, “The World of Department Stores” makes a worthwhile gift for the history, sociology or shopping buff on your list.


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