Shop Girl: A Memoir by Mary Portas by Jonathan Mortimer

The today’s Mary Portas or ‘Mary Queen of Shops’ is one of the leading authorities on the state of the retail sector and brand recognition.  At the same time, Portas is the champion of retaining a diverse high street which has at its heart the importance of bringing together local communities.  She is the Dragon’s Den’s answer to frank advice to failing retail businesses but at the same time just a little bit scary.

But what of the Mary Portas of yesterday ?  What inspired the girl from a small and overcrowded terraced house in Watford to become such a household name ?

The answer is in the dedication on page 1 “To Mum.  How lucky was I getting you”.

This unusual memoir of Portas’s early life leaves the reader in no doubt that the fire within comes from the tragic loss of her parents in her teenage years and the need to grow up quicker than most.  Her mother was a ferocious Irish catholic and her father a bus conductor.  Their loss meant any thoughts of a place at RADA had to be put to one side.  This is a coming-of-age story and Portas has only reached age 16 by the middle of the book.  As you might expect, there are plenty of raw experiences including illegal smoking, setting fire to the local school and other tomboy moments.

The run to the end of this early years reflection takes us through the world of bedsits and initially failed applications to Waitrose, John Lewis and Marks & Spencer before this shop girl ultimately creates dreams for window shoppers at Harrods.

There are some lovely moments including what to do when sharing a lift in Harrods with the late Princess of Wales and what Muhammad Ali says to you when you take a wrong turn and encounter him almost naked in the men’s changing room.

The memoir ends with Portas still in the early stages of her development as a freelance designer but leaves the reader with no doubt as to how the journey has shaped Mary to become a retail guru and household name.


Jonathan Mortimer is a dispute resolution partner at Raworths LLP.

Mary Portas is appearing at the Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival on Thursday 7th July at 5.00pm.

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