Recalling the Filene’s Basement: It had character – and characters

In 2007, when Filene’s Basement was moved out of its famous location when the Filene’s building was supposed to be rebuilt as a skyscraper, I had this sinking feeling that it wouldn’t return there. And indeed, it hobbled along in a series of other locations with the same name but not the original atmosphere of the flagship store. The plug was pulled recently and the 21 remaining Basement operations will all be gone by January.

What will remain, though, are the memories and the traditions of the Filene’s Basement store at the corner of Summer and Washington Streets.

Just think of the entryways. When you went in the entrance on Washington Street at the end of the building closer to City Hall, you got a glimpse of the spiffy Filene’s main floor with tables brimming with well-folded clothes, but then you quickly turned to the right and took an old staircase to the basement. You might has well have gone into the wardrobe – like in the book “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” – because all of a sudden you were in the magical Filene’s Basement in the famous suit section where I got a suit and a number of shirts and shoes over the years.

And then there was the entrance right from the corridor of the Downtown Crossing MBTA Station, down a little flight of stairs and into the tumult and the shouting of the women’s clothing section.

That was the heart of Filene’s with those huge wooden drawers and bins of sweaters, blouses, scarves and everything else under the sun plus racks of dresses and more dresses. There was no changing rooms in Filene’s Basement so women and girls tried on things right in the aisles, sometimes stripping first to their underwear while ducking around some column or bin, or not even bothering to do that in the rush.

When I ventured into this territory in search of a dress or sweater for my wife or my daughter, I felt like a lone soldier who was way beyond his front lines. I’d look hard and fast, select my gift, and retreat to more neutral territory.

I remember once taking the T from Dorchester to a meeting downtown with a business leader and forgetting to put on a tie. In a panic as the clock ticked, I rushed into Filene’s Basement, grabbed a tie for $3, and made the meeting on time and in a presentable state.

Filene’s Basement had its traditions, among them the famous “Running of the Brides” that followed the annual huge mark-down sale of designer bridal dresses. Brides-to-be lined up the morning of that event and then stormed in looking for a huge bargain for their great day ahead. My wife got a beautiful wedding dress there for $100.

She and her crew from St. Agatha’s School started going downtown to Filene’s Basement in the early 1960’s. They nicknamed it “Fi Bay” and they did their share of roaming the heaping bins of clothes searching for the right style and the right bargain.

The Basement had automatic sale mark-downs where the prices decreased over 30 days down to near zero, after which clothing items were supposed to be given to charity. Legend had it that some people would hide an item elsewhere in the store until it reached the next level lower of bargain price, then return to buy it. Now would that be considered a venial sin?

And State Sen. William Wall of Lawrence took constituent service to a new level in the 1970’s when he supposedly took items to the Basement for return from people in his district. What would the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street movements say today about that move by a politician?

I sent the news about the closings to our friend Ann in Ireland who’d carve out two hours during a whirlwind visit to Boston to head to Filene’s Basement. In sending her that e-mail, I felt like I was sending a condolence card.

A store is a store is a store. Nothing lasts forever. There are stores with some good bargains still around. But I worry for Jacob Wirth’s Restaurant, the Brattle Book Store, Simco’s Hot Dogs, Mike’s Pastry, Al Capone’s Pizza. …you name it … because we’ve seen Filene’s Basement close its doors.
Yes, it’s about nostalgia, memories, places with character, and not a bit of a plastic feel to them.

Lew Finfer is a Dorchester resident.