This past week, Hudson’s Bay, whose story begins 347 years ago in the fur trade, making it the oldest company in North America, announced that it was selling Lord & Taylor’s flagship store, on Fifth Avenue, several years after it had acquired the department store chain through a deal with a private-equity firm.
The buyer would be WeWork, the office rental outfit very much rooted in the virtue-and-shell-game ethos of 21st century capitalism. The founders Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey got together in a building on the Brooklyn waterfront where they both worked — Mr. Neumann as the proprietor of a company called Krawlers that produced padded clothes for babies — and quickly realized that they could make money from all the vacant space they saw around them by simulating the atmosphere of the Silicon Valley workplace, fueling the dreams of young entrepreneurs who always wanted to appear as if they were having fun. Over the summer, seven years into its existence, WeWork reached a $20 billion valuation.
On the face of it, the transformation of a department store — the first in the country to install an elevator — into the headquarters of a start-up is simply a story of the new economy cannibalizing the old. Traditional retail businesses have been in decline for a long time; the cult of shared goods and services enabled by technology is ever ascendant.
The first iteration of Lord & Taylor was a dry goods store on Catherine Street in Lower Manhattan that opened in 1826. The 676,000-square-foot Italianate building in Midtown it eventually occupied in 1914 (a building for which WeWork is now paying $850 million) stood not merely as a monument to turn-of-the-century commerce but also as the grand testament to what the sociologist Thorstein Veblen called the rising culture of “conspicuous leisure.”Continue reading the main story
Leisure, Veblen wrote, “does not connote indolence or quiescence.’’ What it conveys is the “nonproductive consumption of time,” by which he was not anticipating the 10,000 hours people would fritter away playing Minecraft, but any time spent away from the activity of labor. In their infancy and well into the first 80 years or so of the 20th century, department stores were largely places to pass the hours. When Lord & Taylor opened on Fifth Avenue and 38th Street it featured three dining rooms, a manicure parlor for men and a mechanical horse that could walk, trot or canter. Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of Selfridges in London, dictated that “a store should be a social center.” To that end he installed an ice rink and shooting range on the roof of his store and exhibited the first plane to fly over the English Channel.
During this period, shopping as the consummate theatrical experience was memorialized in art. Florine Stettheimer’s 1921 painting “Spring Sale at Bendel’s,” to cite one example, shows us no cashiers, no scrambling for discounted Jazz Age style. In rich reds, it delivers the sense of a decadent party. Émile Zola’s novel “The Ladies’ Paradise” chronicled the rise of the Parisian department store in the 19th century, with its reading rooms and varied enticements.
Today, of course, shopping is something else entirely, not a diversion but just an extension of our working or “productive” lives. At our desks and laptops we buy our avocados, face creams, bathing suits, boxer shorts, coffee tables, routers, sport coats, ski clothes. We can spend $53 or $8,500. There is nothing to immortalize unless you are a writer or artist moved to render the image of an exhausted-looking middle-aged woman staring at a screen-full of Amazon reviews.
With the rise of the internet, shopping came to look like work, and work, in many instances, came to look like leisure, which is why WeWork’s purchase of the Lord & Taylor building has a resonance beyond the obvious. WeWork leases office space to small but growing companies, giving them shared access to communal rooms that look like lounges with bars, air-hockey tables, lemon-infused water and so on.
“WeWork’s mission is to help people make a life, not just a living,’’ as one of its executives recently explained in a news release. The tech sensibility, which has leaked into so many other industries, imagines distinctions between work and private life as benighted. You are always working — posting to Instagram your vacation pictures in Bali, where you also happen to be sourcing materials for your new app-distributed small-furniture line — and you are always living.
You could, in fact, build an entire social life around the WeWork experience. There are events all the time. Next week, for instance, a branch of WeWork in Dallas will hold a fashion show to benefit an animal protection charity. The show is to be followed by drinks, manicures and the opportunity to adopt a dog. There are WeWork offices in Haifa, Israel; Tokyo; Buenos Aires and 53 other cities now.
Although the mourners are unlikely to be comforted, Lord & Taylor will not disappear entirely from New York’s streetscape; the famous Christmas windows should survive. Lord & Taylor will rent a quarter of the building, maintaining a smaller version of itself. WeWork will take over the rest for its headquarters and the leasing of shared office space — and tutorials perhaps for what is supposed to count now as a good time.Continue reading the main story