By Jim Botticelli/Dirty Old Boston Founder
They lined up well before it opened, ready to jump on serious bargains. Filene's Basement in Downtown Boston was Lord and Master of the department stores that drew so many to downtown when it was a real destination. Gilchrist's, Jordan Marsh, Kennedy's, Bond's. All vital, all thriving, until the suburban landscape began hosting hideous malls and highway exits with half-mile long backups. People came to Downtown Boston by train or subway. That was where you came to get the goods.
There was no other retail experience that matched it. The display units were piled high with well handled, sometimes unrecognizable clothing, never by size or style. Women were particularly vicious, but to be fair, they all understood. Everyone knew. It was the Law of the Jungle. First Come, First Served. No exceptions. Shut up and shop. She snatched it out of your hand? Too bad Missy. Cry me a river.
"The ultimate bargain dress event probably had to be the most vicious, when every dress, we'd get thousands of them for $16.99," said Lori Frongillo, a 17 year employee . "And they would just grab. They'd grab them out of your arms. 'I had it!' 'No, I had it!' "
No one would believe it today, but Filene's Basement shoppers frequently ignored the changing rooms, opting to strip down right in the aisles.
"No one used a fitting room. You saw everything," added Frongillo. "They did not care. It was the thing to do. They're not gonna wait in that line. They see it — they're putting it on. They don't care. They're in the Basement. That was their whole thing."
Shoppers often lost clothing they'd been wearing, or lost a good pair of shoes, because they would be swiped or misplaced in the heat of the moment.
The Basement had such a devoted following that people who worked downtown went there during their lunch hour rather than eat. That was when men came in there in droves. Racks and racks of topcoats, suits, sport jackets priced so low that a working stiff could look like a million bucks for just a few pennies. Viva Le Basement!
Thanks to local journalist Sascha Pfeiffer for assistance on this article for all she's done for DOB.