Pleasure in store

At Christmas time department stores attract shoppers the way Bethlehem attracted wise men. geoff nicholson celebrates
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The Independent Culture
If you love department stores, and I have to confess that I do, then I suppose you ought to love them more than ever at Christmas. That is surely the time when they function most intensely, when they operate at full throttle, when they are most pr ofoundly themselves.

Certainly all the conditions that define a department store are still present. In a world increasingly devoted to specialisation, the department store represents a triumph for the encyclopaedic. Of course, even at Christmas, one never needs to be able tobuy a fridge, a tea service, a new suit and a full set of matching luggage all at the same time, all under one roof, but it's good to know there are places where you can.

This diversity, this inclusiveness makes department stores like museums of the present. If by some miracle a Victorian department had been kept intact as a sort of time capsule it would tell us more about Victorian culture than any number of more formal histories. If tomorrow the whole of British civilisation, except for Selfridges, was mysteriously wiped from the face of the planet, the contents of the store would enable some future mutant generation to make a fair stab at constructing a model of what life was like in the Nineties.

Admittedly it would be a partial model. For one thing the department store tends to be rather slow to pick up on what's happening in society. The lingerie department will contain wispy erotic items in lace and satin but nothing in rubber or with thongs. The book department will probably contain volumes by Alan Hollinghurst, but it probably won't contain anything by Dennis Cooper.

Otherwise the department store presents a model of society that is actually more appealing than society itself. Here is a safer, cleaner, ritzier, more polite, more perfumed world than the one we're used to, where the worst crimes contemplated are shoplifting, cheque and credit card fraud, pickpocketing and pilfering; good old-fashioned, non-violent crimes.

The department store is comforting and welcoming in all the ways that a shopping mall is not. Whereas the mall is committed to the immediate and the transient, to the flashy and meretricious, the department store is committed to tradition and continuity.Department stores have a history and a soul, while malls have neither.

They are also a rich source of metaphor. Harrods used to have the slogan "Enter a Different World'' and indeed a department store is a world apart. But equally it can be thought of as a city with its own transportation and communication networks, its ownsecurity forces and immigration policy. It is a beehive with workers and drones. It is a theatre, a series of stage sets that hide the more mundane, workaday fabric of retailing. Certainly the best department stores are maze-like, places in which one can become happily lost.

I think my fascination with department stores started early. I remember as a toddler in the late Fifties being taken regularly to Walsh's in Sheffield because I loved riding the escalators. They were thrilling and scarey, and if I say that they seemed asexciting as any modern white knuckle ride, you'll realise what an innocent age this was.

I became less of an innocent but a connection had been established; a department store was a kind of fun house. My first job was as a Saturday lad in the television and stereo department at Pauldens. And when I was an aspiring writer in need of work, I toiled as a clerk in the furniture department at Harrods. Once there, I became a bored, idle, shiftless employee, but I soon discovered that as long as I had an official-looking piece of paper in my hand I could wander round the store and nobody would ever ask me what I was doing. The piece of paper allowed me to explore, and I've been exploring ever since.

That's why I always found Are You Being Served disappointing. It was accurate enough in depicting a closed world where people who had no great affection for each other were forced into regular contact, but it was too static. It was an end of the pier show, whereas my version of department store life was hand-held, fluid, quirky, something conceived by Terry Gilliam.

I was never sure that a department store was the right place for an aspiring male writer. For the belief persists that the department store is a largely female domain, that shopping is woman's work. Certainly every department store I've ever seen had always devoted at least a whole floor to "ladies fashions". And most men feel like intruders, not to say complete perverts, passing through these zones.

However, you will certainly find historians who assert that the department store played an important part in women's emancipation. From the mid-19th century onwards they were places where for the first time women could circulate freely,without having to account to anyone. Needless to say, it was not an English invention. It was a Frenchman, Aristide Boucicant, owner of Bon Marche, who made all this possible. He introduced a number of retailing innovations. Customers were allowed to enter his store, walkaround freely, see the goods at close quarters, and never be pressured to buy.

Not that department stores are wholly changeless. Once they were independent and family owned, today most belong to one of several large groups, even though in many cases, the old family name is retained. At the other end, what were once departments havenow become franchises, so that ticket agencies, travel bureaux, opticians have set up shops within shops. Department stores do follow trends, but only slowly.

Of course things are different in department stores at Christmas. The customers do experience pressure, but it's largely self-induced. Shoppers are less leisured, they come from further afield. They may not be regulars. The assistants also tend to be different, lots of temporary staff, younger, more energetic.

The place looks different, too, being decorated with fairy lights and Christmas trees. And, of course, Father Christmas will be in residence. We surely all make our first acquaintance with Santa Claus in a department store grotto.

But the real change is what happens to the stock. All the goods that have been useful orat the very least decorative, are transformed. At Christmas they all become one and the same. They all become potential gifts. If you go into Debenhams at the moment you will see any number of items labelled "A Perfect Christmas Gift". Perfection is to be found everywhere; in a raincoat, an asparagus kettle, a tin of shortbread. This perfection is also returnable, preferably in January, when the sales have started, when the department store transforms and reinvents itself yet again.