The Filene’s Basement going-out-of-business blues

No New Year’s Day hangover for me as 2012 unfurls. Instead I’ve got a roaring case of the Filene’s Basement Out-of-Business Blues.

By Jan. 1, after more than a century as America’s first and probably most famous off-price clothier, all 21 remaining Basements plus 25 sibling Syms stores will have gone dark, throwing 2,450 people out of work, mostly on the East Coast. I felt awful about those folks, so during recent visits I thanked the cashiers, the salespeople and the ladies who count the garments en route to the fitting room — 10 max, Dearie — for being part of the Filene’s experience.

Gallery

Gallery

In recent days, equally bummed Syms regulars bid fond farewell to the staff at the Rockville and Falls Church stores. “It’s like it was a funeral,” mused Linda Mock, who’d worked at Syms stores in Virginia for 33 years.

With at least 100 Sears and Kmart stores recently targeted for closing, I knew better than to ask any of the current casualties about the future. I cannot imagine what they thought as diehard shoppers picked through dwindling inventories, which had been pushed into ever-shrinking islands surrounded by the remains of empty clothing racks, shelving and eerily dismembered mannequins.

I also feel for Marcy Syms, chief executive of the eponymous empire founded by her father, Sy, in 1959. “Syms, where an educated consumer is our best customer,” the two would kvell in TV ads touting their high-end, low-price wares.

In June 2009, five months before Sy’s death, his daughter, now 60, acquired Filene’s Basement in a federal bankruptcy auction, betting that the two stores’ long retail history and consumer brand loyalty could carry the day. Alas, two months ago, Marcy — I call her by her first name because, frankly, she feels like a longtime shopping girlfriend — blamed this latest Chapter 11 ordeal on three factors: less good stuff from suppliers, more rivals and a killer recession, or, as she explained in a company statement: “Increased competition from large department stores that now offer the same brands as our stores at similar discounts; a proliferation of private label discount chains; a decline in buying opportunities as brand name labels have reduced overruns by improving their supply chain management — all combined with the worst economic downturn in our lifetimes.”

Everyone seems to have become a discount retailer these days, offering deep markdowns to lure cash-strapped consumers and making it harder for the off-price pioneers to compete.

Since the bankruptcy filing in November, hundreds of jarring liquidation signs have been plastered all over both Syms stores in our area as well as the four Filene’s: in a Rockville Pike strip mall, at Mazza Gallerie in Chevy Chase, on Connecticut Avenue near the Farragut North Metro station, and at 14th and F streets NW next to the National Press Building. The downtown D.C. stores are an easy walk from the White House and countless law firms and lobby shops. To workaholics and sport shoppers alike, they offered an escape from a tedious day. You could watch a high-powered political operative study the Vivienne Westwood cuff links and chic Ted Baker shirts, or maybe catch a deputy assistant undersecretary of something buying emergency Spanx.

Ah, Filene’s, where a harried intern could quickly score a picture frame or a scented candle for the office “secret Santa” party, and where reporters who’d just been called to appear on TV could grab a snappy scarf or tie before airtime.

A prospective employer once suggested that we spend our interview hour checking out Filene’s new Italian purses. In short order, I’d bought a pleather Bottega Veneta knockoff while she’d emerged with a groovy skirt. And, yes, I got the writing gig.

I rarely hit the Rockville store, 45 minutes from my house, but in November I made a sentimental return. There in a dingy corner I spied what looked to be the dregs of a bygone “Running of the Brides” sale: a dozen beat-up wedding gowns, each priced to move in the low hundreds, true, but nearly all in need of major spot removal and repairs.

The Connecticut Avenue store was my mother ship for evening wear, lingerie, trouser suits, pantyhose. Two weeks ago, in a combination mourning ritual and last-gasp bargain binge, a 60-minute blitz yielded two pairs of leggings, two spandex camis, a silk turtleneck, a belt, butt-lifting knickers and some lace socks. Grand total: $90.82, plus five cents for a large “I just got a bargain!” plastic sack that is now a collectible.

On Wednesday I popped into the Chevy Chase store, across the street from three of Filene’s surviving competitors: Nordstrom Rack, T.J. Maxx and Loehmann’s. The store looked beyond dismal the day before closing, but Sandra Tran Seamen, a striking hairstylist, diligently searched the remaining merchandise for some overlooked treasure.

“I work in Mazza, so I come here every day,” she said of a circuit that included all three nearby discounters. “Loehmann’s has better young contemporary and juniors’ stuff, but Filene’s has the best designers. It’s where I bought this coat” (a stylish mustard Missoni) “and sweater” (a red cashmere number), she said, while examining a peach cardigan she soon rejected as too large. “And I got a $5,000 Prada purse for $1,500. But first I went upstairs to Neiman’s to compare prices.”

The only bag I wanted at that moment was a large black Filene’s Basement schlep sack meant for hauling piles of try-ons around the store at great peril to neck and shoulder muscles. Despite signs promising “no reasonable offer refused” for every remaining object, management declined my $5 bid for a single tote. Maybe the staff wants them for souvenirs. Maybe Marcy wants them for old times’ sake. So I paid another clerk 50 cents for 25 small Filene’s white plastic bags, the perfect size for a sandwich or a small gift.

Each one screamed, “I just got a bargain!” And indeed I had, along with a terrible case of Filene’s Basement Out-of-Business Blues.

outlook@washpost.com

Annie Groer, a former Washington Post staffer, writes about politics, design and culture.

 
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