News of Central Group establishing a presence in one of Europe’s most timeless capitals triggers memories as well as a revisit to Bangkok’s unique and nearly forgotten retail relic.
RecentIy, I read online that a Thai retail group announced a partnership with a European real estate developer to launch a new department store in Vienna. This bit of news seemed innocuous enough, like any other electronic blip about acquisitions and mergers I might typically come across while scrolling through morning news updates. But then I read a line stating that the joint venture signified the first foreign owned (even if partial) department store to enter the European market in over eight decades. This news made me think about how it symbolised a completion of sorts — a full circling of the retail story as it relates to Thailand, reminding me in particular of one truly bizarre shopping experience I encountered over twenty years ago while on a walk in Bangkok’s old town.
The circle I mentioned — Thailand’s long love affair with department stores —began around the turn of the previous century. The concept of such emporiums was initially brought in by European entrepreneurs heralding a new era of consumer demand. New tastes, new technologies and most of all, new spending power. Eventually Thais began making their own mark on the retail market. The very first of these was the anachronistically named Nightingale-Olympic department store located on Tri Phet Road, in Bangkok’s Wang Burapha and Phahurat neighbourhoods.
Over nine decades ago in 1930, Nightingale-Olympic was founded by the Niyomvanich family in two modest shophouses across the street from its current location. By the time the present frontage opened its doors in 1966, in what was then one of Thailand’s tallest buildings, the Nightingale-Olympic ushered in a more modern age of shopping — one that was decidedly in stark contrast to its immediate vicinity, an area famed for its street-side market stalls and once surrounded by fortification walls dating back to the capital’s earliest days. Coincidentally, the location of the new department store in Vienna on Mariahilfer Strasse is itself just beyond what used to be that city’s Medieval walls.
When I was young, I remember my Grandmother mentioning to me about shopping at Nightingale-Olympic, not fully appreciating at that time what she was referring to, until one day in 2001, when by chance I walked through its entrance seeking to escape the sweltering heat outside. In fact I was quite unaware at the time what I had walked into, thinking initially it was some kind of second hand thrift shop like the ones I used to visit with my Grandmother growing up in Southern California. The Nightingale-Olympic was most assuredly retro, but not in the way I initially thought.
It wasn’t long before a few well worn signs informed me I was in the Nightingale-Olympic, but that was not what captured my attention. What I had initially thought was a random collection of dated items from a bygone era, was in fact the intentional, sectioned displays of a department store trapped in time — It was as if I had just entered a tomb of retail awaiting the return of customers long since vanished to another world. Everywhere I looked there was nothing that seemed to date from what was my present time. Everything had a faint layer of dust to it, a stillness that I found unsettling. There I was, on the set of an episode of The Twilight Zone. Years later I read an article written by Courtney Lichterman for the BBC that best captured what I had seen that day:
“Inside, the Nightingale Olympic feels more like a living museum diorama than a department store – a Wes Anderson movie come to life. Shelves full of 1950s hosiery in original boxes sit across from stiff-stringed tennis racquets from the ‘70s. In the lingerie section, large, lacy bras hang precariously on rusty tenterhooks, seemingly kept upright by the makeshift counterweight of a 1960s Nightingale promotional bag. Display cases jaundiced with age hold bottles of rare, evaporating Schiaparelli and Christian Dior perfumes. There are deep, progressing fissures in the necks of the store mannequins, and much of the stock looks as if it might turn to dust if handled.”
One thing stood out in my mind from when I first visited the Nightingale-Olympic. It was a signed photograph of Merle Norman, the namesake of the makeup brand around which the store built a considerable part of its reputation. The brand was famous for its “try before you buy” philosophy, as evidenced by the demonstration beauty station which sits centre stage on the department store’s ground floor. Looking elegant and glamorous with her impeccable handwriting, Merle Norman’s image on a counter next to the beauty station reminded me of publicity stills of Joan Crawford from Hollywood’s golden era.
As a business, the Nightingale-Olympic’s story remained confined to within its walls. It would be another Thai department store family whose fortunes would rise, taking their vision of retail into the following century, and now ultimately completing the circle in which the Nightingale-Olympic represented a midpoint. A handing over of the baton in an business race it could not complete. For now though, the story of Thailand’s first department store has not yet come to an end.
It has been over 20 years since I first walked into the Nightingale-Olympic. After reading the article about the ascendency of Thai retailers into the heart of Vienna’s baroque city centre, I decided to repay a visit to see if anything had changed. I had half anticipated the high possibility that the store might not even still be in existence. But there she was, unchanged except to my astonishment, for an undeniably recent coat of paint on her retro abacus-inspired facade, as well as new signage that looked exactly like the old one. Same same, but different.
In a city where overnight the forces of commerce can obliterate an entire city block, and in a industry where trends from one season to the next are necessarily deemed out of date, there was the Nightingale-Olympic, almost exactly the same as I had seen her on my first visit. There were only two things I noticed inside the store that were new. One was the addition of an image of a new monarch, and the other amusingly enough, was a bottle of disinfectant gel, placed right next to the portrait of Merle Norman.
In a final twist of coincidences to this story of retail fame lost and won, the new department store in Vienna will be called LAMARR, named after another of Hollywood’s golden era stars, Vienna’s own Hedy Lamarr. I was also born in Vienna. I think Merle Norman would be pleased.
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