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Born To Shop

June 2024
1min read

Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture

by William Leach, Pantheon Books, 510 pages, $30.00 . CODE: RAN -13

Reading Land of Desire , one can’t help recalling how Holly Golightly, Truman Capote’s heroine in Breakfast at Tiffany’s , explained her yearning for that particular store; “nothing very bad could happen to you” at Tiffany’s, she promised herself. In meticulous, fascinating detail William Leach tells us how stores came to inspire such feelings. As Henry Adams limned Chartres, so Leach builds the great cathedral of commerce, the American department store, from ground up, showing how its very walls, tempting glass display windows, quasi-religious offerings of concerts and chorales, and, not least, its wide range of merchandise (Bloomingdale’s once had a four-story building devoted to the manufacture of pianos) changed the nature of American consumerism and, therefore, our culture.

“After 1895, stores, museums, churches, and government agencies were beginning to act together to create the Land of Desire,” Leach writes, “redirecting aspiration toward consumer longings, consumer goods, and consumer pleasures and entertainments.” Clearly the author doesn’t enjoy this lush flowering of twentieth-century consumerism as much as Holly Golightly and her fellow shoppers have. From the first “democratization of desire,” with its roots in the founding of this nation, Leach unearths a sinister legacy: “It fostered anxiety and restlessness and, when left unsatisfied, resentment and hatred.” And from that, the author believes, flows “the American refusal to face death as a fact of life.”

One suspects the author believes these insights to be the most valuable part of his book—the heart of it, in fact. But for the reader, especially the Holly Golightlys among us, its value and enormous pleasure lie in the raw material Leach has assembled: the stories of the Wanamakers and the Strauses, the pioneering window-display artists (including L. Frank Baum, whose Wizard of Oz , Leach tells us, is an allegory of American consumerism), and the sleek, fearless women buyers, who reached the top of their field decades earlier than one would have imagined.

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