Backstory: The original bargain basement

To take the escalator down to the original Filene's Basement is to descend into an incandescent subterranean culture - a world ruled by the bargain.

Here at the retail anchor of Boston's Downtown Crossing, women tend to get nearly naked in the middle of the store, saving themselves dressing room detours and wasted shopping time. If another shopper clings to something they covet, they'll stalk her - tugs of war apparently are common. And they'll secrete away just about anything in any bizarre place they can think of - a bra shoved deep inside a men's boot, a tiny dress disguised between plus-size suits - hoping the price will drop the longer it sits on a shelf.

The century-old bargain basement has spawned its own mythology, economy, and customs - outliving even its progenitor, the venerable Filene's department store upstairs, a victim of corporate absorption now in the process of shutting its doors.

According to local lore, if a 911 caller isn't desperate for an ambulance, she's probably looking for directions to the Basement. It has been called "the second most sacred secular space in Boston" - behind Fenway Park. It has inspired a one-woman show, a documentary, and a charming illustration in a children's book where two sisters hold hands, awed, as the women behind them scuffle over a bright pink scarf.

More than 15,000 shoppers daily wade through 500,000 pieces of clothing spread over two floors that also hold shoes and housewares. To the uninitiated, myriad colors and patterns make it hard to focus, and the daunting escalator ride into the bedlam of a busy day can feel a little like entering the first ring of hell. To the veteran, mere mention of the place quickens the pulse.

Back in 1908, well before discounters like Target inspired the phrase "the democratization of fashion," there was the Basement. It was a space where anyone, regardless of background, could find a designer label at an affordable price.

"It's unlike any other place - truly - in the world," says Susan Edbril, a psychologist from Brookline, Mass., who is working on a documentary about the Basement as a tribute to her grandmother, a saleswoman there for 30 years. "It is the one place where you leave your status at the door."

Upstairs, the once-elegant Filene's is in the garish throes of liquidation, walls hung with blue and yellow 20 to 50 percent off signs. But in the bowels of this historic Beaux Arts building, where air vents are visible and, in some spots, the ceiling is crumbling, signs reassure concerned customers: "Business as usual in the Basement. We are not associated with Filene's."

Though now the merchandise comes from high-end retail stores nationwide, when the Basement was founded, it was the repository for items that lingered too long above. Once in the basement, the clothes entered the automatic markdown system, which today still governs the economy down here. It works like this: A Calvin Klein cashmere sweater arrives, already marked down. After two weeks, it's automatically reduced by 25 percent. If it lasts on the floor two more weeks, the price drops by another 25 percent. And after a final two weeks, it's reduced to 75 percent off. If unsold, it's donated to charity.

It is this system, in place only in the original Basement (not its 25 offspring), that has inspired the most unusual shopping behavior - a culture with customs that assure survival only of the fittest.

First and foremost, it's important to arrive early. On special sale days - like the twice-a-year bridal event - a snaking line forms underground hours before the store opens.

"Those of us who take it really seriously are going to stand in line and we're going to wait for the bell and we're going to run," says Nancy McCabe, a Mary Kay saleswoman from Belmont, Mass., who worked in the Basement during college and has shopped here her whole life.

"Dress to strip" is another rule. That means a camisole and tights, a body suit, or abandoning modesty altogether. Even with women's dressing rooms installed in 1989, inveterate shoppers won't bother to waste time in there.

Yes, "customers strip sometimes," says Sylvia Amenta, shaking her head (and orange hair), as if she's seen it all. And she probably has. She's worked here since 1946.

Ms. McCabe admits, unapologetically, that she's one of those women: "No, I do not use a dressing room. I still change right in the middle of the store."

There's virtue in grabbing first, choosing later. You can always put an item back - or, better yet, barter with someone else. "If you have four dresses in the same pattern, you have three to trade," says Eda Roth, an actress whose one-woman show includes her comic Basement adventures.

And stashing is effective, no matter what the store claims publicly.

"It's easy to 'hide' something" there, says Frances Moseley, gesturing toward long rows of hanging slacks and skirts and jackets, making quotation marks in the air around the word "hide." She's had long experience, shopping here for 30 years - even visiting daily for a stretch when she worked nearby. It seems the strategizing doesn't get old: Her hazel eyes twinkle at the opportunity to initiate a newcomer into Basement ritual. "It's amazing," she says, sounding a little surprised herself, "I was here a lot around Christmas - and it worked."

Deliberate in red Puma sneakers that match manicured nails, Ms. Moseley walks over to women's suits and notes that her favorite "hiding" spot is in the petites section.

But, whatever you do, she advises: Never let on that you're interested. If you do, it will pique your shopping competition's interest. "I have followed women around the Basement," confides Moseley. "And women have followed me, waiting for me to put something down. I'll hold onto it until she disappears," she says. "I don't want it, but I don't want her to have it either."

Ultimately, though, just because something's a bargain doesn't make it a good buy. Ms. Roth once bought a dress by an English designer. Tiered black lace with a silk lining, it retailed for $3,600. She paid $168. "It was a little too tight," she says. "But I thought this was just a fabulous thing to have in my closet." It stayed there, unworn, for four years. Finally, she sold it at a consignment store for $100. "I figured it only cost me $68 over four years to rent the thing."

Perhaps overlooked, but no less important: When you find yourself stripped down in the middle of the store, do not lose sight of your own clothes.

"It's happened that I've gone to look for my skirt and someone had taken it - and bought it," says McCabe. "I had to buy something to wear home."

How could that happen?

"Well," she says, "tags fall off."

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