Filene's Basement

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.

9 comments

Mark Cripps

I used to hang out in the old Playland Cafe back in the days of the Combat Zone, a place where the accompanying cast of characters were the best part of the atmosphere. One particularly less than convincing drag queen would arrive just about daily with her wares for sale to the patrons.All of which still had the Filene’s Basement tags on them.

Mark Cripps
Rick Corsi

I was one of those who skipped lunch every now and then to grab some great bargains (especially Brooks Brothers)!

Rick Corsi
rita manning

I worked in the basement after school and my mother, Stells, was a store detective there. Oh, the stories that we would hear at night during supper.

rita manning
Carol Cella

Love your site and always loved Filene’s Basement…always there at least once a week till they finally closed. GREAT BARGAINS…

Carol Cella
Jeanie

Loved the basement. The quality of the clothing for great prices. The sub-basement was even better!!

Jeanie
Jeanie

Loved the basement. The quality of the clothing for great prices. The sub-basement was even better!!

Jeanie
Bke

Did Filene’s Basement even have dressing rooms for women? I recall none for women, only for men. I do recall trying stuff on right there on the floor of the store! Fun times.

Bke
Leo j Buckley

I worked in Filene’s after school and through the Summer. I worked in the eighth floor Famous Resturant, had many friends who worked in the basement and still ran into one reciently and reminisced, he knew one of my buddy’s sister who worked there also. It’s a small world after all is correct. Worked there when the MTA shut down due to a strike. Went to East Boston to get the car to give the young girls a ride home. Hitchhiked through the tunnel to get to EB a wonderful night ensued!

Leo j Buckley
Celeste Gobeille

Spell check that first line.

Celeste Gobeille

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