Thursday, September 10, 2009


The sweet scent of a heady concoction of perfumes wafted out as the doors to a store on London’s Oxford Street swung open. A gaggle of shoppers bustle out with slick plastic shopping bags bursting at their well moulded seams with the day’s excesses. Through the glass windows that sprang up from the pavement, I could see shoppers drifting and darting from counter to counter, like dazed children at a fairground, ushered around by a set of rather chic attendants with smiles that dazzled as much as the bright and shiny wares in the windows.

Seduced by the aroma and the ambience, I followed the sweet scent to the doorway and was about to enter when the corner of my eye happened to catch something dirty and grey. I stopped and turned to see a tall thin white man in a shabby tweed jacket and loose brown trousers standing with a big cardboard sign in his hands and an upturned hat with a few coins in it on the pavement near his scuff ed brown boots. I couldn’t read the handwritten sign so I went closer… The sign said “I’m homeless, just like Harry from the store… Help Me! It’ll make him Happy!!”

Nearly every shopper who walked past the sign would stop to read it and while some would nod and smile, others would stick out their chin and wonder, but irrespective of their reactions, most of them would drop a penny or more into the hat. Intrigued, I walked up to the man and asked him what the sign meant but he was too busy smiling and nodding at people to notice. I inched closer and in a slightly louder voice, asked him, “Who is Harry?” That seemed to have grabbed his attention. He turned towards me and looked at me as if I had asked him if he paid taxes… then he unclenched his jaw and said, “Harry? … He owns the store!” That just blew my mind. “Owns the store? This store?? Then why is he homeless?”, I asked. But the tramp ignored the question. He just went back to bowing and smiling at passersby and looked right through me as if I wasn’t there. I hung around for a while, hoping to catch him once the crowds thinned but Oxford Street was overflowing from brim to bottom this evening and I gave up and went inside.

After spending an hour and a half in the slipstream of other shoppers at the store, I thought of heading back to the hotel but before leaving, I went back to the corner entrance to check on the tramp but he had left by then. I so wanted to know about Harry’s story but knew the attendants in the store wouldn’t have the time or the inclination to trade stories during business hours and I didn’t know who else to ask, so dejected and disappointed, I trudged back to the hotel.

At the hotel, I asked people if they knew anything about Harry’s store and the man at the travel desk, Ryan, smiled and said,“Please take a seat sir, I’ll tell you his story.” “

Harry is dead,” he said. “He died long ago, in fact in 1947. It was a sad and lonely death too… Harry was not British but actually an American from Wisconsin. Born in the mid 1800s, he lost his father to the Civil War and his mother struggled to bring up the family. Once in his teens, young Harry dropped out of school and started working to supplement the family income. He joined a retail store and steadily rose up the ranks and managed to save enough by the time he was 40-years-old to consider retirement. The fact that he was married to an heiress only made the decision seem even simpler.

Around this time Harry travelled to England with his family, and perhaps disappointed with the ‘stiff and stilted British service’ and the general quality of our retail services, decided to show the Brits how it ought to be done and declared publicly his designs of building a grand department store in the American fashion in what was then an unfashionable corner of London. He was laughed and scoff ed at by the media in London and everybody told him his plans would fail but Harry would have none of it. He invested many hundred thousand pounds of his personal fortune into the idea and moved with bag, baggage and babies across the Atlantic and settled down in London. It is said that he was an obsessive and compulsive workaholic who involved himself with everything with the tiniest of details regarding the running of the store and redefined the shopping experience for London and the world with his innovations and customer centric policies. “The customer is always right” is a phrase you might’ve heard across businesses around the world. Well, it was old Harry who came up with that phrase.

It is said that on a typical vacation, good old Harry would take the afternoon train out of London on a Saturday and reach a continental skiing destination by Sunday. He’ll spend half the day skiing and then pack his bags and leave for London and would be in the store by Monday morning, opening time. By 1918 Harry had become a retail moghul and his store had become the benchmark for stores around the globe. But it was all too good to last. Harry’s wife caught the fl u and died. And something within old Harry too died as he stood by her grave that day. Perhaps in a bid to drown his grief, old Harry plunged headlong into the gloom and glow of the London night clubs. Ill fated and whirlwind affairs with a number of women including the Hungarian– American dancing twins, the Dolly sisters pushed Harry further away from reality. Within a decade Harry had squandered and gambled his fortune away. Removed from the board of his own store, and crippled by debts that ran into millions of pounds, the great retail baron had lost his fortune, his fame, his castles, his Rolls Royces and his pride and joy – his ‘store’ to his excesses. He died a forgotten pauper who lived in a shanty corner of the city and had to take the bus to town. That is the tragic story of a millionaire’s madness. Harry Gordon Selfridge gave the store his name and today Selfridges is amongst the premier department stores in the world and yet… and yet….”

Next morning, I rushed back to the ‘store’. I stood outside the great doorway and the tall glass windows. Everything, even today was just like the way old Harry had conceptualised the store all those decades ago. The annual sale that was on right now, the bargain deals in the basement and the very concept of keeping the perfume counters on the ground-floor, practices that are common place in every departmental store in the world… they were all Harry’s ideas, and yet… and yet… In the corner by the door I saw the tramp with the sign. “Who is that man with the sign?”, I had asked Ryan. “Oh, that man… he’s a crazy kid… calls himself the inheritor of Harry’s legacy… but that’s another story….”


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