The Nightingale Olympic Co. is situated in the central Phra Nakhon เขต พระนคร district of Bangkok, opposite the Old Siam Shopping Plaza โอลด์สยามช้อปปิ้งพลาซ่า, and mere streets away from the bustling, infamous backpacker haven of Khao San Road ถนนข้าวสาร. It’s rather boxy, Brutalist architecture and faded, almost monochrome appearance stand in stark contrast to, well, pretty much everything surrounding it and it’s impossible to miss unless you’re trying really, really hard to ignore your surroundings, or have wandered away from Khao San and are too drunk to care.
The very first department store in the city, it opened in it’s current location in 1966, but the history of the company can actually be traced back much further to the 1920s, when current owner Nath Niyamwanich’s นายนัติ นิยมวานิช parent’s small store on Phahurat Road ถนนพาหุรัด was consumed by fire and they were forced to rent a house and operate their business selling jewellery out of their own home. After steadily building the business back up, further bad luck then befell them when the entirety of their stock was stolen in a robbery, creating a period of significant financial upheaval. In 1929 they began anew, this time selling toys and stationary and by 1930 it was decided to rent another physical store unit to house the business.
A year of growth later and the business started to diversify into stocking musical equipment, importing instruments from Germany and Czechoslovakia – becoming (allegedly) the first store in Bangkok to source products from Europe. At this point the enterprise still didn’t have a proper name, but after a flash of inspiration, the family decided to name it after one of the brands of violins they imported: “Nightingale” (the instruments themselves possibly named after the 1717 Stradivari violin that gained this nickname).
2 more years passed, and the owner of the adjacent store decided to sell up, providing an opportunity for the Niyamwanich family to expand the business. This new premises was fashioned as a sports store, and after young Nath’s graduation from the Faculty of Law, he became it’s manager and built a client base consisting of other stores, schools, and even government offices. Naturally a sports store had to have a suitable sporting name – you can probably guess which one made the final cut.
Expansion continued after WWII, after an adjoining Japanese-owned store was taken back into ownership by the Thai government and was acquired by Nightingale to be repurposed as a warehouse for their ever expanding selection of stock. During the early 1960s, the business was forced to move, after a construction firm successfully bid for their premises, the current store was planned and built, with it’s bold, modernist design, into which the standalone businesses were merged and officially incorporated as “The Nightingale Olympic Co. Ltd”.
Nath Niyamwanich died in 1973, and Nightingale Olympic is now managed by his daughter Arun อรุณ นิยมวานิช, who has featured in the odd tv interview conducted by Thai news crews. The store doesn’t appear to have changed much, if at all, in the intervening 50 years and, rather bizarrely, still seems to contain all of the original stock – stepping through the front door really feels like going back in time to a world of creepy 60s mannequins, yellowing; slowly decaying products, and with everything seemingly existing under a distinct, desaturated beige filter – like being inside a sun bleached photograph.
Speaking of photographs, photography is a no-no inside the store, as several signs immediately point out – I snapped a few hasty shots anyway when no-one was looking, which isn’t so easy when you’re not just the only Westerner in the store, but also it’s sole customer. The ground floor houses the fashion section, with styles that I daresay will come around once again if it stays open long enough, half evaporated perfumes (including one apparently favoured by ex-Premier and coup leader Sarit Thanarat สฤษดิ์ ธนะรัชต์), and a sporting section with the majority of space given over to tennis and golfing equipment.
The upper floor, accessed by a winding staircase at the back of the store, is split between musical instruments, and fitness – with almost an entire wall taken up by a line of ancient vibrating belt machines in order to shake away those pounds. The music section consists of a wide variety of instruments in varying stages of decay: accordions, violins, harmonicas and a large brass section, alongside more modern (well, for the 60s) organs and electric guitars. I noticed that many of these were missing strings, and I’d probably make sure you’ve had a recent tetanus jab if you fancy playing on those that remain.
The prices on the majority of Nightingale’s stock are, to put it bluntly, utterly insane. I saw half-empty bottles of ageing perfume tagged at around $700USD, an old Kawai electric piano (that I’m not convinced even worked) for around $1300, and that’s on items you’re actually able to buy. I enquired about one of the old Japanese electric guitars and was told they weren’t even for sale! Maybe something got lost in translation there and what I was told isn’t actually the case, but it makes a certain kind of sense as to why all the old stock is still here languishing. I read in an interview with the current proprietress, that a small handful of incredibly loyal and wealthy customers sustain the business with immense purchases every year. I’m not so sure I buy that, and I suspect that, either the business is run as a kind of vanity project relying on external funding to stay afloat, or, more sinisterly perhaps, it’s a front for something else entirely. Either way, there’s no need to actually sell any products, bar a few sundry goods such as bras, tennis balls and the like (which are actually priced sanely) to prove you are operating properly as a business.
Of Nightingale’s 7 floors, only the first 2 are open to the public, and the third, which contains a beauty parlour is accessed by invite only. The remaining 4 are a total mystery, and I’d love to have a glimpse to see what they contain. I can’t find any references online as to their contents when (presumably) they were accessible during busier days past, but someone must have shopped there who knows – I can’t imagine all of them were given over to storage space. Anyhow, whatever’s up there, Nightingale Olympic somehow persists, despite how unlikely it looks from the outside like a viable business, and is now visited by the occasional tourist, film crew, and pop sensation: