Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Remembering Filene's Basement

There was a day when everybody who was anybody did their Christmas shopping all year long in Boston's Filene's Basement.  "The oldest off-price retailer in the United States, Filene's Basement focused on high-end goods and was known for its distinctive, low-technology automatic markdown system." [Wikipedia]

Recently, waiting in line for Chestnut Hill's Apple Store to open brought to mind the long morning lines at the top of the steep narrow cement stairway leading down to Boston's legendary Filene's Basement, housed in, yes, the basement of Boston's elegant Filene's Department Store.  Folks would travel thousands of miles or simply walk over Beacon Hill, less than one mile away, for this unequalled shopping experience  -- the first stop for folks arriving from London, the last stop for folks leaving for Paris -- and the regular visit for those locals who knew the secret of bargain hunting, long before bargain hunting and sales became literally "a dime a dozen".

There were always tales, true tales and tall, about the happenings in Filene's Basement.  Men would go to the Basement during their lunch hour, just to watch the women (also on their lunch hour) stripping to try on the clothes that they found for prices not to be found elsewhere!  Folks would buy their wedding dresses there, and, rumor has it, return the dresses after the wedding.  (As long as you returned the tags, and the clothes appeared unscathed, returns were accepted.)  There was even a tale of a woman who had purchased a wedding dress for her daughter's open casket, and returned it after the "viewing" at the Funeral Home!

Everyone who shopped the Basement had special techniques. The Basement's automatic markdowns attracted bargain enthusiasts, ever-increasing in numbers.  According to an article in the New York Times in 1982, "... every article is marked with a tag showing the price and the date the article was first put on sale. Twelve days later, if it has not been sold, it is reduced by 25 percent. Six selling days later, it is cut by 50 percent and after an additional six days, it is offered at 75 percent off the original price. After six more days — or a total of 30 — if it is not sold, it is given to charity."  Marash Girl knew a man who worked as a driver at the Massachusetts State House; he had the time to visit the Basement daily and he did just that.  He described his "system" to her one day:  he would locate a suit that he wanted to buy but couldn't afford even at its marked down price, move the suit from its appropriately sized rack to an inappropriate rack, and do this daily (as the workers would daily replace the suit to its appropriate rack), daily until the item was marked down to its lowest markdown; before it was given away to charity, he would find where he had hidden it, and purchase it for 25% of the original Basement price (which was already 50 to 75% off of the retail price).  True story!

Seamstresses would purchase clothing on the markdown rack, clothing that had been damaged or dirtied in the daily struggle for bargains (serious physical tug-of-wars), clean and repair the  clothing until it was "as good as new", and sell the designer pieces in their high end boutiques for half of the original price, still making a huge profit.

Dowagers from Beacon Hill would sort through tables mounded high with designer labeled skirts, marked, for that day only, 5 for $10!

The experience was one to remember for a lifetime, and now, sad to say,  lives on only in memory, for Filene's Basement, as it was in the heart of Boston's Washington Street, is no longer.


  1. What a bummer! For some reason, I thought they had closed all the outlet-type Filenes Basements but had kept that one open. I used to be scared going there as a kid - much like in Building 19, I was afraid of being trampled by the masses!! I thought it was funny years later when living in New Orleans that I would hear commercials on the radio every year for the annual "Running of the Brides" wedding dress sale at that location. You REALLLLLLY had to be careful venturing into the store on those days!! :)

  2. A few years ago I went to an outlet Filene's Basement in Towson Maryland. I knew I shouldn't have. It might as well have been Ross or TJ Maxx. I too remember the days of the old Filene's with its three-story basement, and I remember stripping to try on my find, and digging through bins of designer lingerie.