Bargain hunter laments passing of Filene’s Basement

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By Sondra L. Shapiro

Modesty took a backseat to a bargain at the original Filene’s Basement in downtown Boston. As women stripped down to their bras and girdles in the middle of aisles to try on skirts, dresses or slacks, men stood on the stairs leading down to the Basement unabashedly ogling the scene below.

The Basement was a place where good manners were left at the door as women of every shape, size and age pushed, clawed and in some cases engaged in tug-a-war to acquire a drastically marked down Johnathan Logan dress or a cashmere sweater at 75 percent off.

The Basement — the oldest off-price retailer in the country — was started in 1909 in Boston by William Filene as a place for the Filene’s department store to sell excess merchandise. Filene invented the automatic markdown system, which meant the price tag on each item was marked with the date it hit the selling floor. The longer an item remained unsold, the more the price would automatically be reduced to 25 percent off the original cost, then 50 percent and finally 75 percent. What was not sold was given to charity.

Without rehashing the various acquisitions the store has been part of, suffice it to say the latest company to own it, Syms Corp., filed bankruptcy and is liquidating all 21 Filene’s Basement locations. The news fills me with sadness and a sense of bittersweet nostalgia, since the store is where I developed my bargain shopping chops and a fondness for discount designer duds.

To venture into the dark depths that housed the Basement required the shopper to embrace reckless abandon — a concept that was alien to my 1960s world since I was raised by a mother who would never leave the house wearing slacks or without makeup and who had genteel manners to match — habits that were surely ingrained by her southern background. Yet, her penchant for well-made clothing combined with a blue-collar income helped convince my mother that abandoning a sense of decorum was a small price to pay in order to venture into the underworld of retail mayhem that was Filene’s Basement.

The Basement was the destination of my first adult-free trip to downtown Boston from my home in Malden. I was around 14 when my friend Pammy and I skipped going to a Saturday football game, caught a bus, then hopped on the Orange Line train and were finally deposited at Filene’s entrance. During that first trip, I was so overwhelmed that I only managed to buy two pairs of nylons and a tube of lipstick.

On subsequent trips, I learned how to push and shove with the best of them, and developed a practiced eye for getting through a lot of junk quickly in search of that one treasure: a Tahari suit, which was so well-made and timeless that I kept and wore it for decades; a Willie Smith Zoot Suit that became a hit in my teen party circuit; luxurious cashmere sweaters (not the cheap, thin offerings that department stores put on sale these days); and a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress, which pushed my budget to the limit.

I learned the hard way that my best attempts at burying a prized hand-knit sweater underneath a pile of cotton underwear in hopes it would still be there when another markdown was taken was no match for my fellow treasure hunters who were far more seasoned than I.

Friends brag about their purchases from discounters like T.J.Maxx and Marshalls, but nothing compares to the thrill of the hunt during those early days at Filene’s Basement. The disorganized merchandizing: tables brimming with wrinkled, haphazardly displayed clothing and racks so crammed with hanging items that it took brute strength and a willingness to ruin a manicure for the sake of possibly laying hands on a newly marked down mini dress, like the one Twiggy wore on the latest cover of Vogue.

Since I was making the trip to Boston specifically to shop at the Basement, I would never consider leaving one stone unturned, or more accurately, no rack or table untouched. It was serious business, a day-long task. When I left the store, I’d be sweating, regardless of the 30-degree temperature outside.

But my brimming bag filled with those once-in-a-lifetime finds was worth every hour I spent underground.

Yes, I admit I respected and related to the women who filled the aisles in maniacal frenzy — my fellow fashion warriors.

The Filene’s Basement experience is an indelible memory of my youth, one that helped shape the “shopper.” If it’s not discount, I won’t buy it. Now and then I still find myself burying a coveted scarf underneath a pile of pocketbooks in hopes it will still be there when markdowns are taken. Some habits are just too ingrained to break.

So, although Filene’s Basement is a ghost of the off-price giant of its past, we bargain addicts will pay homage by squeezing through the doors, pushing and shoving toward that final markdown.

Sondra Shapiro is the executive editor of the Fifty Plus Advocate. Email her at sshapiro.fiftyplusadvocate@verizon.net or read more at www.fiftyplusadvocate.com.