Filene's Basement To Close Its Doors

Nov 3, 2011
Originally published on November 3, 2011 7:19 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From innovation to liquidation, Filene's Basement is shutting its doors - again. The Boston retailer went bankrupt a couple of years back. A fellow discounter, Syms Corporation, bought it and tried to revive the business, but now they're filing Chapter 11, too. In all, they're closing 46 stores. Here's NPR's Tovia Smith.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: For many Bostonians, the attachment to The Basement, as it's affectionately known, is a deep and visceral one. It's literally like losing a friend.

LELA BURNS: Oh, that's such a bummer. I didn't hear that. That's so sad.

SMITH: As news spread today to shoppers like 35-year-old Lela Burns(ph) at a Newton Filene's Basement, the mood was kind of a cross between a wake and a Black Friday bargain-palooza.

JEAN-PIERRE ONZATI: I just want to see if there's any bargains before it's too late.

SMITH: Jean-Pierre Onzati(ph) , a hairdresser in town, couldn't resist getting in on the final markdowns. Even before the store's liquidation, Filene's Basement offered more than just deals, Onzati says. It was an opportunity.

ONZATI: You know, you can go to Filene's Basements. You walk in with regular clothes. You come out with Canali, and you become like one of the super rich.

SMITH: But The Basement's appeal crossed all income brackets.

JANE CLAYMAN: I bought the most beautiful beaded dress that was so exquisitely made, it was unbelievable.

SMITH: And cheap?

CLAYMAN: And cheap. Yeah, really cheap. It was like $30. It was ridiculous.

SMITH: And you could have paid more if you tried.

CLAYMAN: Yeah. If I wanted to, I could have, but I really didn't see anything I loved as much as that dress.

SMITH: To shoppers like Jane Clayman(ph), part of the pleasure was finding the treasure.

MICHAEL BAVARO: You know, it's sort of like why men go hunting. I mean, they don't really need to kill to put food on the table anymore. It's more or less to have bragging rights and the thrill of the hunt.

SMITH: That's Michael Bavaro, who's produced a documentary about the store called "Voices from the Basement." He says its founder, William Filene, knew his customers well, not only pioneering the now famous automatic markdown system, but also hyping sales like years ago when the store put giant banners on the trucks bringing in Neiman Marcus merchandise.

BAVARO: It's sort of like when you see the circus coming to town and there's just truck after truck of circus wagons and animals and it was like here's comes the goods. So people waited and then they would rush down and be the first ones in line and they literally did stampede through the doors.

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SMITH: One of Filene's most famous events was its bridal gown super sale. There was a no-holds-barred competition for designer dresses marked down to $100 or $200. But as more stores got into the discount business, Filene's found itself in a brutal competition for shoppers, like 40-year-old Nada Usif(ph).

NADA USIF: Yes. I just came from TJ Maxx.

SMITH: Did you get a bargain there?

USIF: The best prices are at TJ Maxx. That's where I get all my bargains.

SMITH: But now you're coming to check here?

USIF: Actually, I just like to check all of them. I'm also going to Marshall's.

SMITH: Experts say Filene's Basement could never match the buying power of its bigger rivals and it never seemed to recover from the closing four years ago of its flagship store in downtown Boston, which many saw as the heart and soul of the brand.

ADRIENNE MCGRATH: And it hasn't been the same. Sorry. It just hasn't.

SMITH: 73-year-old Adrienne McGrath(ph) says it's sad to see Filene's Basement close. McGrath says it's a huge loss, but one she already mourned years ago. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

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