Farewell, Filene’s Basement

Back when I was a child, I was puzzled about this place called Filene’s. I thought it was owned by Bambi’s girlfriend Faline. She and her beau were nowhere to be found the first time that I went in-town shopping with mother and siblings.

There were at least a few family pilgrimages to Filene’s Basement in Boston every year. It was always a big event. We’d walk through the upstairs store too, and across the street to Jordan Marsh. But we seldom bought anything on the upper levels. Too pricey.

“The Basement” we knew and loved, with its raucous crowds and automatic markdowns and designer duds for cheap, is long gone. But they made it official today with the news that all of its stores would be closing by January.

I have to say that I knew this was coming way back in the 1980s. I was working at the Bank of New England and saw the acquisition/expansion loan proposals touted by CEO Sam Gerson…a leveraged buyout to spin off and expand Filene’s Basement.

Making the Basement a separate company from Filene’s itself – and financing it with mountains of debt – was dumb to begin with. Taking the Basement out of the basement and putting its bastard children into malls around the country was ever crazier. Didn’t they learn anything from Mammoth Mart, Zayre, Orbit, Bradlee’s, and all those other retail busts?

Still, it was with a measure of nostalgia that a read the corporate obituary. Filene’s and its founding family deserve a prominent niche in the business and social history of America.

Wilhelm Katz arrived in the United States from Prussia in the late 1840s. Like many Jewish immigrants of the day, he was fleeing the persecutions and pogroms that had sprung up in Europe after the Revolution of 1848. When he got to Customs in Boston, he wanted to register with an Anglicized version of his surname. Rather than Katz, he preferred “Feline.” The customs officer misspelled the name, and he became William Filene.

William Filene’s Sons Company was established in 1881. The Washington Street store opened in 1890, the start of the “Gay Nineties” and the height of the Gilded Age. William’s son Edward, pictured below, ran the company from 1908 to 1937. He was an exceptionally fine leader and captain of industry.  Among his innovations were:

  • Complete and honest descriptions of merchandise, and a “money back if not satisfied” promise;
  • Organization of the Filene Cooperative Association, America’s first company union, and advocacy of a “buying wage” as opposed to a “living wage;”
  • Minimum wages for women and a 40-hour workweek;
  • Founding the Credit Union National Association, which liberated many people from usury;

Did you also know that:

  •  Boston’s first public telegraph office was opened on the service balcony of Filene’s (1913)

(If you’re a post-boomer, do you even know what a telegraph office is?)

  •  Filene’s was the first American store to get rush shipments of the newest fashions from Paris, sent over on the Graf Zeppelin (1928)

Edward Filene (Photo by Bachrach)

(If you are a post-boomer, do you even know what a zeppelin is?)

  • Filene’s was the first store in New England to be air-conditioned (1935)
  • Filene’s uniform headquarters in Northampton outfitted every WAVE naval officer and every woman officer in the Marines (1945)
  • Filene’s installed a zoo on its roof, complete with an elephant, lions, and monkeys. Hurricane Carol destroyed the zoo the same year (1954). I never went to that zoo, but I remember Carol.

One more thought. We have read much about the drive, innovation, and creativity of the departed Steve Jobs. No one disagrees about the benefits that his company and products brought to the world.

I suggest that the story of Filene’s and Filene’s Basement – for its first 70 or so years anyway – is much like that of Jobs and Apple. It shows what the entrepreneurial spirit in the competitive pursuit of profit can do for a people, a city, a country.

Well done, and rest in peace, William and Edward Filene and family.

2 Responses to “Farewell, Filene’s Basement”

  1. Margaret Says:

    Tom what a great story. You write so well Best MCW

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