Even if they didn’t shop there, pretty much everyone who grew up in the Boston area knew about Filene’s Automatic Bargain Basement.
Well before there you could get the max for the minimum at T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. Well before there were outlet malls full of Off Fifth and Hanes. Well before there was a Nordstrom Rack around the corner, there was Filene’s Basement.
When I was in high school, I probably got half of my non-mom-made clothing at the scaled-down Worcester version. Since I wore a uniform to school, and had no money, that didn’t amount to all that much clothing, but I can still remember the thrill of finding a Villager sweater (with IRREGULAR stamped through the label) for a few bucks. Some basement items are extremely vivid in my mind: the navy blue raincoat that was the very same version everyone else wore (and that I lost at a mixer at St. John’s High); the white Lady Bug Bermuda shorts with the lady bug pattern; the blue and purple madras shirt.
When I was in college, I still wore a uniform – jeans and baggy sweaters – and I still had no money, but what little shopping I did I could now do at the REAL Filene’s Basement in downtown Boston. Those fabulous tweed culottes, that cool unbaggy cream colored sweater I wore with them. (That hideous Dentyne pink dress…)
When I started working downtown, I cruised the B a couple of times a week, just to see what was up, just to see how marked down it was. (Each item – which was already marked down - was date-stamped. After twelve days on the floor, you got another 25% off. After six days, the cut was 50%. Six days later, it was down to 75% off. But you couldn’t game it forever. Anything on the floor for 30 days was given to charity.)
The big events were publicized in advance: the Bonwit’s Sale – I got a very cute white cotton jersey dress with blue flowers on it, the Barney’s Sale – that black, grey, white and red sweater that I still have; the cute purple and black checked suit from Brooks Brothers. (I swear: it really was cute.) On these special sales day, you would just zoom in, grab as much as you could off the racks – or off the splintery wooden tables that held merchandise – toss your finds in a pile, then paw through them looking for the keepers. Women would call back and forth, “You interested in that?” “Nope. It’s yours.” These were mini-versions of what Filene’s Basement later became famous for: The Running of the Brides, when the off-price bridal gowns came to town.
In addition to that Barney’s sweater, I still have a half dozen or so scarves I got in the old B. (Once it moved from its actual basement location and opened in a non-basement location in the Back Bay it was never the same.)
The Basement closed four years ago. A sad day for Bostonians!
And now the B:
“…is making a comeback under new ownership as a low-price e-tailer...The site will go live in late September with discounts of up to 70 percent on brands such as Polo Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors and Calvin Klein, according to Women’s Wear Daily, a fashion industry publication that was first to report the reopening.” (Source: Boston Globe)
Digital just won’t be the same as cruising the B, fighting for bargains on special sales days, trying things on in the wide open spaces (no dressing rooms for women: only for men).
Meanwhile, retail life goes on. The site of the original Filene’s Basement is now a Roche Brothers, where I do my grocery shopping. The walls next to the escalators show old timey pictures of folks lining up for sales outside of the basement.
I’ll give the online version of Filene’s a look-see when it goes live late next month. But it just won’t be the same.