The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys: A Family Tale of Chutzpah, Glory and Greed. By Joshua Levine. William Morrow & Company, 1999. 256 pages.Reviewed by Damion Matthews
"New York" magazine thought enough of this book that they made it their March 1st cover story, publishing excerpts from it under the headline "Barneys Babylon." The nicely illustrated, eight page article must have made the folks at William Morrow happy (although one wonders if such a giveaway really teases the reader to buy the book or merely gives her a reason not to buy the book). After all, since "The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys" greatest readership is bound to be in New York, where better could it be featured than in "New York" magazine?
Oh yeah, "The New York Times." Just as I was to sit down and write this article, I received today's copy of The Times, which I quickly perused (anything to put off writing), and in which I was to find, to my amusement, a review of "The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys." As I made my way through the first sentence I recalled that a successful book reviewer once advised against reading another person's review of a book before you write your own. Up until now, I've been very good about following that advise.
Imagine my surprise as I discovered that The Times reviewer, Jennifer Steinhauer, said many of the things I had been thinking as I read this book. Indeed, "The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys" does have a very limited audience (Who will read it? I have been following fashion for years, yet I was less than enthusiastic about reading a book about a clothing store.) And it does have far too many details regarding financing and loans and prices and such (like anyone who buys the book for its tale of "chutzpah, glory and greed" is going to care what the profit was on a suit in the 1970s?) But the biggest problem is simply that the characters are not nearly as interesting as we're supposed to think they are.
Joshua Levine did an excellent job with the material he had at hand. His research is meticulous. His writing is clear and engaging. His reporting seems to be fair. But ultimately, it's hard to write a gripping expose when there's not much to expose.
This book is valuable not because it tells the Pressman family's secrets, but because it shows the changes that have taken place in retailing in the 20th century. Perhaps Levine's talents were wasted by narrowing his vision to just this one store. My favorite part of the book is where he points out that the Pressman family is just one of a handful of families throughout America who've founded great stores and then, over time, have seen them close or change beyond recognition. Usually, these family stores are ruined by outsiders in the form of competition or investors or banks. Maybe the store will be sold to a large corporation that can run it profitably (if you can't beat them, join them.) But whatever the case, important stores are rarely owned by real people anymore (they're owned by huge corporations based thousands of miles away), a fact that has contributed greatly to the low standards of American dress.
There is a big difference between shopping at a locally owned store and a store owned by a faceless, distant corporation. No matter how many times a store like Saks Fifth Avenue is renovated, and regardless of how much training the sales associates have been given, the atmosphere still lacks the warmth and feeling of personal service of a locally owned store, an atmosphere which is so important in making a person feel good about shopping and dressing well.
Susan Rolontz, executive vice president of the Tobé Report, recently remarked to "The New York Observer" that "Personalized service and a personality was what it used to be about. We have lost a lot of those stores like Martha and Bonwit Teller. Even Bendel, when they were on 57th, used to do it."
Interestingly enough, Ms. Rolontz made her comment in an article about Jeffrey, a store to open in New York in August, which insiders are comparing to Barneys. In fact, the store's founder, 36-year-old Jeffrey Kalinsky, was once a Barneys shoe buyer, and many of the people he's hired for Jeffrey are ex-Barneys employees. It may turn out that the person to benefit most from reading Levine's book is Mr. Kalinsky as he follows the path of his predecessor. If he doesn't, there just might be a tell-all about the "rise and fall of the house of Jeffrey." Mr. Levine is surely up to the task of writing such a book, but I think one behind-the-scenes account of the operations of an upscale New York store is probably quite enough.
This book can be purchased online from Amazon.com through
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