The other day, I stopped in to Filene's Basement in downtown Boston. (No, not the glossy above-ground version in Back Bay. The original - and, until recently, the greatest - which is now closed down to make way for progress.) There was nothing much there. Only one floor was open, and that was sparsely populated with a handful of 80% off racks. The one that caught my eye had men's white briefs on hangers (something I'd never seen)for a buck each. The lines were long, the merchandise limited, the scene depressing. I breezed in and out.
One more link to my past gone - although this time only temporarily. We are promised that a new Basement will take it's place when the site is developed into whatever combination of luxury condos-office space-shopping is going up there. Whatever they do, I hope they maintain some/all of the original Filene's façade - an elegant and lovely grande dame that ceased to exist when Federated decided that every department store in the world had to be called Macy's.
In the last decade or so, I haven't done much shopping at The B. There are so many other bargain outlets, and The B had started to produce their own labels, so it was getting harder and harder to find the real steals. But I remember the adrenaline rush when the Bonwit Teller, Nieman, or Saks left-overs showed up - and I still recall one of my favorite B purchases: a little cotton knit dress, from Bonwit's, white with blue flowers - remembered fondly as much because it was 30 years and 20 pounds ago....
But lately most of my "buys" were umbrellas and picture frames.
Still, my recall of The B are many and fond.
I first shopped The B in Worcester when I was in high school. Like everything else in Worcester, it was a scaled down version - one floor instead of two - but it had the same creaking wood floors and ancient merchandise tables.
It was thanks to The B that I was able to buy the same Villager sweaters that the rich and swank girls at my high school all wore. Like my sister Kathleen, I was a scholarship girl at Worcester's "elite" Catholic girls school, where the students were the daughters of doctors, lawyers, and funeral parlor owners - all of whom shopped at Casual Corner and the Ivy Shop - and upstairs at Filene's - and who all seemed to have endless wardrobes full of Villager, Lady Bug, John Meyer, and Papagallo clothing. Thankfully, we wore uniforms, but for the first few days of the school year, you could wear "real clothes."
Not that I ever measured up clothing-wise with these girls, and not that spent that much time trying to. (Why bother? I was never going to own 6 pairs of Papagallo two-toned flats and matching Bermuda bags. Or have my own Mustang, like one of the funeral parlor daughters drove.) But I did want to have a few things that weren't made by my mother, and The B gave me that chance.
So what if the only Villager sweaters to be had in The B were olive green or yellow-orange heather - the two least flattering colors in the world on me - they were real Villager sweaters and, as long as I kept them on, no one could see the IRREGULAR stamped in black ink over the Villager tag.
Later, when I moved to Boston, I haunted The B and for years got most of my clothing there: the great Barney's sweater marked down to near-nothing; the black suit that was perfect other than for the yucky buttons, which were easily replaced; the cool taupe suit with the Eisenhower jacket; that fabulous Liberty of London silk scarf - still wearable, as long as I tuck the stained edge under.
One time, my sister Kathleen and I found a rack full of floor-length plush coats in bright red and orange. They were truly crazy, and truly cheap - marked down from what - $500? $1,000? - but something ridiculous, to something that was reasonable enough for us to buy one of the red ones as a joke gift for our sister Trish.
My all time worst Basement purchase was a madras shirt-waist dress. When I put it on for the first time, I realized that it was redolent of someone else's body odor. Unfortunately, I didn't pick up the smell until after I was at work. So I had to sit all day giving off someone else's odor. Yuck! It's okay to have buyer's remorse, but not after you've worn something - and sweated in it. Yuck! I washed the dress and got the odor out, but I never wore it again.
Ah, The Basement.
Yes, it will be back in 2009, but it won't be the same. Gone, I'm sure, will be the crummy tile floors and beat-up tables, the terrible lighting and the no dressing rooms, the signs letting us know when the goods were going on further markdown. (The B dated the tags of all it's merchandise, and every few weeks marked things down by 25% until, eventually, they were taken off of the floor to the charity desk.)
One of the great pleasures of getting older is looking back, and look back I do at Filene's Basement. For years, cruising The B was a regular part of my existence. That hasn't been so for a long while, but how I will miss it.
I believe that Filene's Basement was first opened in 1908. If so, it will narrowly miss it's 100th anniversary. It's a shame, but that's progress. Downtown Boston could use a facelift. It's just that, like most beautiful 100 year olds, to me The B really didn't need one.