The Department Store Time Forgot
For countless tourists the destination of Bangkok, Thailand is a synonym to a modern day shopping paradise. Vendors hawk counterfeits on the sidewalks and new vintage markets have become the latest trend to sell genuine retro pieces. The ever-crowded colossal retail malls, with their exclusive international brands, have transformed consumer appetites lusting after luxury European labels.
A far distance from this new hub of fashionable boutiques are the lively streets of Chinatown. This vibrant neighbourhood filled with traditional fabric markets and family-run businesses is one in a handful of places that truly retains an accessible historical connection. Today it sees major infrastructure projects reaching its outskirts. The once decaying colonial facades are slowly being renovated by a new generation of entrepreneurs that see value in developing this unique part of the city.
Though it’s undoubtedly part of Bangkok’s history, very few people have even heard of Thailand’s first department store: Nightingale-Olympic. With its worn concrete exterior, this once glamorous department store doesn’t grab nearly the amount of attention it did at the height of its glory years.
Nowadays, if you inspect closely, you’ll notice something just isn’t quite right with the setup: the mannequins in the front windows are chipping with age, grimy old models in shop- soiled fashions from the 60s. With distorted limbs, their poses only seem natural for someone possessed.
Consumer Time Warp
If you have the courage to venture through the entrance you’ll instantly feel transported into a time warp: products manufactured decades ago are still on display for sale in crisp, unopened packaging.
Strolling through the ground floor you’ll be overwhelmed by a level of nostalgia that fills the air. Examples of home-wares and products that have long been outdated are still sitting in numerous glass cabinets ready to be sold. The store’s overall emphasis was to sell foreign imports, and it succeeded in becoming the sole agent for many brands from Europe and America.
Everything brings back this feeling of time past by as you wander through the sporting counter. Classic wooden tennis rackets sit proudly on displays with vintage Fred Perry shirts encased in plastic sleeves as mounted advertising posters from Wilson obstruct the aisle. These faded promotional pieces used to build sales star the bad boy of 80’s tennis, John McEnroe.
As you progress through the store the beauty counter inevitably grabs the eye. Two worn-out chairs sit vacant in the middle of the store, their yellow upholstery have seen better days. The make-up products from the late 70s on the counter are another symbol of the past. Against all odds, this department store has remained the exclusive distributor of Merle Norman Cosmetics and its studio can still be located on the third floor.
In its prime, the store employed close to a hundred staff, keeping the affluent customers of Bangkok in touch with international fashion trends. Now however, Nightingale- Olympic remains defiantly open, with only half a dozen dedicated staff working the various, mostly deserted departments. This once thriving store is kept open by a handful of loyal customers who seek to purchase trusted reliable products.
The spiraling staircase at the end of the ground floor sits adjacent to a small indoor water feature. These sweeping stairs takes you to the second floor in which you can witness some of Nightingale-Olympic’s most hidden relics that can actually be purchased.
What appears to be a treasure drove is actually a kaleidoscope of puzzling home decorations and equipment. Wild bull horns sit mounted on wooden blocks with rusty exercise equipment scattered throughout. On the front wall sits six vintage vibrating belt machines all in working order, ready to vanquish those unnecessary fat deposits away, and dust-filled musical guitars and instruments sit on the inner ring overlooking the lower floor.
A Brief Glimpse 0f History
This year marks the 85th year of operation for Nightingale- Olympic.
Founded by Nat Niyomvanich in September 1930, this humble family-run business started from a two-story shop-house selling retail consumer products. After a small amount of time it expanded to import goods such as sporting equipment and musical instruments from Germany and the former Czechoslovakia.
Business grew rapidly and soon one shop-house wasn’t sufficient for the growing clientele, it rapidly expanded into an adjoining shop-house. With the outbreak of World War II, the Nightingale Olympic business was forced to relocate to its present location due to an explosion of the shop-houses. The seven story building seen today was first opened in 1966 and at the time this one structure was the tallest in Bangkok.
It’s original three floors were divided into different departments with the first two floors dedicated to retail experience while the third was the exclusive Merle Norman Studio: a beauty salon that transformed the elite, politician’s wives and celebrities for social gatherings.
Sadly, Nightingale -Olympic has been forced to reduce operations and now only two floors are available to the general public, unless you are fortunate to meet Aroon Niyomvanich (sister of the founder) as I did. This ninety plus year old manager is a warm- hearted woman that is still dedicated to showing the most out of her genuine personality to her customers.
Upon request Aroon gracefully opened this hidden gem to me, unlocking the enormous large door of the third floor to reveal a time capsule of a beauty treatment. An individual sauna remains accessorised with massage tables that used to help stimulate circulation. Posters of 70’s hair models with dated hairstyles fill the walls. This once elegant salon has long since vanished, but the items left behind give a wonderful insight on the make-up process for women in those days.
A trip to Nightingale isn’t for the average tourist, but the value it brings comes from witnessing a piece of history still alive today. It’s unbelievable how this department store can actually keep running, even with out-dates pieces, and maintains a charm creating one of the most original department stores you could ever visit.
Check out Nightingale-Olympic for yourself:
70 Triphet Khwang Wang Road, just off of Pahurat Road, Bangkok.