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Final markdown for Filene’s Basement

Discount retailer succumbs to bad economy, competition

Stella Wong said she started shopping at Filene’s Basement 30 years ago. Filene’s Basement has been a presence in Boston since 1909. “I will miss it,’’ she said. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Manon Merchand rode a bus from Montreal to Boston for one last Filene’s Basement shopping spree.

A faithful customer for 30 years, the counselor could not resist finding some final bargains yesterday at the company’s Boylston Street location.

“I came specifically to say my goodbyes,’’ said Merchand, who bought two designer winter coats for $25 each. “Filene’s was the archetype of the mother. It always gave you something - good gifts, good deals, and good bargains.’’

Nostalgic shoppers made farewell visits yesterday to Filene’s Basement stores, which closed for good last night.

The legendary retailer filed for bankruptcy protection in November - the third time in a decade - and has been holding liquidation sales for nearly two months.


The chain, innovative when it opened a century ago, could no longer compete with bigger rivals such as T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, outlet stores, and online retailers including Gilt Groupe and Rue La La.

Marcy Syms, chief executive of Syms Corp., which owns Filene’s, said in a statement yesterday:

“I want to express my appreciation to our employees, many of whom have devoted their careers to Syms and Filene’s Basement, for their loyalty and hard work. I also want to thank our educated consumers and bargain hunters for their dedicated support over many years.’’

A spokesman for Filene’s said the company expected to sell all of its merchandise yesterday. Filene’s had six stand-alone stores in Massachusetts and 25 across the country, including combined Syms-Filenes stores.

By midday at the Boylston Street location, shoppers had rummaged through the store like treasure hunters, leaving shelves, racks, and display cases barren. Floor space that had been cleared revealed worn-out carpeting.

There were bargains to be had - nearly everything was 80 to 90 percent off - which meant you could get Calvin Klein jeans for $2, shoes for $10, and winter coats for $20.


Everything in the store was for sale. Fixtures such as shelves, mirrors, and signs were up for grabs. One shopper bought a female mannequin for $60. A vintage black-and-white poster of a line of shoppers standing outside the original Downtown Crossing store during the 1960s was sold. Someone paid $500 for the security sensors outside the restrooms.

Joseph Johnson wanted to take home a piece of Filene’s Basement, so he bought one of the store’s inside signs, which was listed for $100.

“I will put it in my basement,’’ said Johnson, who also bought the store’s last suitcase, sans one wheel, for $6.

Of the chain’s closing, he said: “I feel a great loss. It’s been part of my life for over 30 years.’’

Filene’s Basement had been a part of the city since 1909, when Edward A. Filene founded the shop as a place to sell extra merchandise from his father’s department store, located upstairs in downtown Boston.

Filene’s Basement made a name for itself by ushering in the concept of bargains through a system of automatic markdowns - and with its frenzied annual bridal sale. Goods were discounted on a schedule that consumers obsessively monitored.

In 1991, the Basement split from Filene’s department stores into a separate chain. When Macy’s bought Filene’s department stores in 2005 and retired its name, Filene’s Basement seemed like the survivor. But not for long.

Filene’s Basement began to struggle as the economy slowed in recent years.


The company had to shutter its flagship Downtown Crossing store in 2007 while the building was being redeveloped. Filene’s planned to reopen at that site, but the redevelopment project stalled during the financial crisis and construction has yet to resume.

Hoping that a marriage of two discounters could spell a turnaround, Syms Corp. bought Filene’s Basement in an auction two years ago. But the economy remained weak. In November, Syms said it was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and closing its stores. Filene’s followed suit.

The Boylston store, draped in “Going Out of Business’’ signs, sat a mile from the original Filene’s Basement. Yesterday, shoppers reminisced and bragged about the deals they had found over the years.

Lavanya Muni, a software programmer from Brookline, would shop at the discounter to buy clothes for her 4-year-old.

“Right from the day she was born, she has been wearing clothes bought from Filene’s,’’ Muni said as she held up women’s trousers marked down from $30 to $4. “My daughter grew up on Filene’s clothes . . . I feel very bad for them.’’

Employees were somber as they assisted customers with their items. About 1,500 Filene Basement workers nationally were to lose their jobs. They were not authorized to speak to a reporter, but as one said yesterday, “This is a tough day for all of us.’’

On the Boylston Street store’s second floor, Kim Fox browsed through the vacant size 9 shoe aisle and fondly recalled how she grew up shopping at the Basement. “You go shopping with your grandmother, your mother. It’s part of your life,’’ said Fox, 52, who would visit the store on her lunch break. “It’s another era gone. Filene’s is going to be missed.’’


Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.