Monday, April 27, 2009

Filene's Basement's marked down, and maybe even out.

Well, go away on a meager, scrawny little 6 day vacation and come back to the news that Filene's Basement has been purchased by a liquidator that's now exploring its options on what to do with it.

Most of what I've gotten in The Basement over the last few years has been umbrellas, socks, and PJ's, but The B and I have a long history, and I'd hate to see it go.

In a time before there were Marshall's, TJ Maxx's, and "outlet malls" all over the retail map, for those of us fortunate enough to live in Massachusetts, there was Filene's Basement. The Basement sold "Irregulars", manufacturers surplus, and the end of season stock of big name department stores.  In addition to the mother church in downtown Boston, there was an outpost in Worcester. (When I was growing up, I believe that Worcester's was the only branch.) Having a Filene's Basement meant that I could occasionally afford a Villager sweater or a John Meyer of Norwich skirt.

Villager, John Meyer, Ladybug, Pappagallo - these were the ragingly preppy brands that were popular when I was in high school in the mid-1960's.  I went to what was (by Worcester Irish Catholic standards) a fairly ritzy and snooty girls high school, where most of the students were daughters of the Worcester Irish elite: doctors, lawyers, local pols, funeral parlor owners. I was there on scholarship and, fortunately, we wore uniforms. There was no way I could ever begin to compete, clothes-wise, with the funeral parlor et al. daughters. (Fortunately, I was more than able to compete academically.) We were only allowed to wear "real clothes" for a few days at the beginning and end of the school year, and I completely envied the "rich girls" their duds: colorful skirts with matching sweaters, matching two-toned Pappagallo shoes, and matching Bermuda bags.  I had a pair of Bass Weejun's. Having a pair of hot-pink loafers with yellow tassels was beyond my comprehension.

But I did want some of what the "rich girls" had.

So I frequented Filene's Basement, which was easy to do since I had to make a bus transfer in downtown Worcester on the way home from school.

At The Basement, I was able to buy a couple of Villager sweaters. So what if they were stamped "Irregular". So what if they were colors that looked completely and utterly rotten on me - dark olive green, orange heather. I also had a pair of Bermuda shorts that were Ladybug brand. The shorts had a white background with red flowers on them. Any Ladybug item came with a small stickpin with a ladybug on it, and I remember proudly wearing that pin on the white "poor boy" sweater I wore with those shorts.

I also scored a London Fog raincoat at the B - the same Peter Pan collared, navy blue one that everyone else in my class had.

The Basement was a high school godsend.

In college, I started shopping at the Boston Basement.

Again, it was the only place I could really afford to buy anything. Not that I wanted much. After a year of so in college, I was living in jeans, army shirts, and workboots. Who needed real clothing?

Still, I may have gotten the navy blue dress I wore to my father's funeral in The Basement...

For a while in my twenties, I worked downtown, and completely haunted The B. I recall the Bonwit Teller merchandise sales being especially good. One dress I very fondly remember was a white cotton knit a-line with blue and red floral sprigs on it. God, I loved that dress and hated to see it turned into a dust rag.

Sales like the Bonwit one were well advertised in advance, and eagerly anticipated. At lunch time, the stores would be completely mobbed. You'd just go in, grab as much as you could that was in your size, and carry your stash off to a corner to sort through it at a more leisurely pace than was possible if you were vying for merchandise on the racks or tables. If you were willing to stand around half-naked in front of strangers you could also try stuff on. (There were no fitting rooms for women in The Basement; just for the men.)

For years, I bought a non-trivial amount of my clothing at The Basement, and went there regularly, even when I was no longer working downtown. I still lived close by, and could easily pop in on a Saturday morning.

Most of what I got there was pretty good, although there was one dress I brought that was a complete failure. Once I got it home, I realized that someone with BO had already worn it and returned it. I really liked the dress - a "my color" purplish madras shirtwaist -  so I tried washing it out, but I don't think I wore it more than once. (If someone was going to wear something and sneak-return it, they could at least have used deodorant, ya think?)

The Basement was famous for its automatic mark downs.

Each item had a date stamped on it, and for every week or so that it remained on the floor, you got a 25% mark down. Once it was there for a certain amount of time, an item went to charity. I remember once trying to buy something that was beyond its "go to charity" date, and they wouldn't let me. I never really played the automatic markdown game - waiting an extra day or so to get the next 25% off -  but was always delighted when I happened upon a marked down item.

Over the years, Filene's Basement got less interesting.

It had a lot of competition from other discounters. Big name stores started to open their own outlets, like Sak's Off 5th. They started selling a lot of clothing that was made expressly for The Basement. (That's no fun!) The company expanded pretty widely, trying to go national, a business decision that didn't work out all that well for them.

And then The Basement's historic location, where it had been in business since 1908, closed down so that developers could put up a high rise mixed shopping-office-residential-hotel whatever on the site of the old Wm. Filene & Sons Department Store. The Basement relocated to Boston's Back Bay where it is no longer located in a basement. I don't think it has any automatic bargains there, either. I don't really know. I've been in there only once or twice, when I bought a sweater I ended up wearing once, and a Sigrid Olsen shirt that I've never worn. It's very pretty, but a bit diaphanous. I just wanted something Sigrid Olsen, but was never willing to pay the full retail price. (Hmmmmm. Some things haven't changed since high school. Of course then I'd have been willing to pay full price if I'd had it.)

Anyway, the wrecking crews came in and tore the old Filene's building down, leaving some of the facade, but mostly a big hole in the ground, surrounded by a cyclone fence.  The developers weren't able to secure funding, and there's no telling when they'll be able to do so. (Do we really need more office space and luxury condos in this economy?)

Part of the developers' deal with Filene's Basement was that, once the project was complete, The Basement would get to move back in and occupy their original digs.

Now the question is, will The Basement even be around to occupy its holy ground once more? Or will some sort of big box store usurp its spot.

Once again, I fear the permanent loss of yet another unique Boston institution.

Oh, bleccchhhhhh. Plus, I could use an umbrella that wasn't half blown out. It would be really convenient if The Basement was still where it's supposed to be...


Marguerite said...

Before my transfer to London I stocked up on 5 new business suits at the B...all with additional 25%discounts. In London a British manager complained that I must be making too much money since I could afford to dress so well. Not knowing of Filene's, I explained that American clothes were just made better, so only looked more expensive. That didn't make him any happier. Surprised I've never run into you there.

Billie said...

Oh, my goodness....there are so few references on the Internet to Villager, Ladybug and the circle pins and Weejuns we all wore in the 60's. I made my mother nuts! Now I can't find a single picture of those adorable prints that were on the blouses. Anyone?

Elise Meyer said...

Try here:

Elise Meyer said...

check out my pinterest board, I am the daughter of John Meyer, and have been collecting an archive