An elegy for Loehmann’s, and for all the ‘Back Room’ bargains that were.
The closing of Loehmann’s has been a slow affair, giving women time both to lament and to shop. The huge yellow banner that screams “Going Out of Business” at the Upper West Side store will be up until March, unless every last steal of a cocktail dress, Italian handbag and cashmere sweater is gone before then.
At Loehmann’s, shopping is often a team sport, with many mothers and daughters and pairs of friends combing the racks together. Some enter the store with the spirit of Olympic athletes, masters of their game, full of confidence. Others seem a bit reticent, still carrying their bags from Fairway, pretty certain they don’t want or need anything but unable to resist a glance, and then another. Soon, they too enter the dressing room, laden with possibility.
These days, the shopping is solemn. The merchandise racks are thinner, but price tags with crossed-out numbers and signs of 40 percent off and “Nothing Held Back” lure us Loehmann’s loyalists in. Women who recognize in each other the decades-long and sometimes generations-long connection to the store easily fall into conversation and share stories of their best-ever bargains and rich memories. A woman told me that her mother used to travel from Philadelphia to Brooklyn, when Frieda Loehmann had a shop in the lower level of her home there.
Mrs. Loehmann was a pioneer with personality. Born Frieda Mueller in 1874, she was married to Charles Loehmann, a flutist with a symphony orchestra. When he could no longer play, Frieda, the mother of three, became the family breadwinner. While working as a coat buyer for a fashionable department store, she had a stroke of genius.
In 1921, Mrs. Loehmann opened a discount shop in Brooklyn, first called “Original Designer Outlet” and later Loehmann’s. She stocked the store by visiting the showrooms of top designers in the Garment Center, entering through a back door and paying in cash for their samples and overstock. When The New York Times reported in 1988 that she kept wads of cash in her bloomers, a reader wrote in to correct that she wore handmade French underwear and stashed her money elsewhere, either in the tops of her silk stockings or in her lace-up leather boots. Others say she carried a big satchel full of dollars. She was known to favor long black dresses, lots of rouge on her cheeks and a slender cigarette holder.
“A legend,” my cousin Marvin, a retired garment executive, says of Frieda. Sometimes, a shopper with a keen eye could buy — and wear — the couturier-designed dress (with its label cut out) later the same day that Mrs. Loehmann picked it up in Manhattan.
Her son Charles opened a second store in the Bronx in 1930, which she opposed, and she continued to reign on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, where she decorated the high-ceilinged shop with gilded furnishings and two grand lions at the entrance.
I had always assumed that Mrs. Loehmann was Jewish — the name, the connections in the garment industry and perhaps because of all the Jewish women I know with fond memories of shopping there. When I asked Gail Reimer, executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA), she made the same assumption and then checked in with some historians who specialize in New York Jewish history and who also agreed. But JWA researchers then came up with a 1934 JTA article clearing Loehmann of accusations that she and her husband were Nazi supporters. Her son William is said to have told the Jewish Daily Bulletin that the family doctor was Jewish as were many family friends. “I think we can pretty definitely say she was not Jewish,” Reimer writes in an e-mail.
Every day, until just before her death in 1962, Mrs. Loehmann made rounds to her suppliers in a black limousine or a panel truck, depending on whom you ask. Returning to Brooklyn, she’d keep watch from the balcony of the shop. After she died, the Brooklyn store closed, and loyal shoppers and their sisters and friends flocked to Fordham Road in the Bronx. My cousin June, who is married to Marvin, recalls that the saleswomen would call the Gabor sisters when items of special interest came in, and they would rush in.
The celebrated “Back Room” was the place of the highest prices and deepest discounts on designer treasures. Back Room regulars prided themselves on figuring out the makers of the clothing, even though labels were slashed. Women would hover as someone tried on something, waiting to inquire, “Are you taking that?”
In the 1950s Charles Loehmann began opening stores outside of New York City. He took the company public in 1964 and over the next 50 years, the company had more highs and lows than the seasonal hemlines. In the late ’90s, the Barney’s on 17th Street and Seventh Avenue was transformed into the downtown Loehmann’s. When company executives — no longer the family — declared bankruptcy in December 2013, it was actually for the third time in their history.
Loehmann’s was part of my family history, too. I shopped there with my mother, my sisters, my nieces and my daughter, and it was most fun when all of us went together, crowding into the communal dressing room with armfuls of stuff. We would pass around our own castaways, share opinions with each other and the women nearby who inevitably asked for them (and we’d listen to those who offered unsolicited advice to us), laugh a lot and take turns running to get another size of something with promise. We’d convince each other to buy when we understood the hint of desire couched in reluctance. Sometimes my father joined us and took his place in the row of men seated at the front of the door, holding pocketbooks.
My mother was a master at finding the unexpected. The daughter of a tailor who had his own Garment Center business, her approach was to move methodically through the racks, handling the fabrics and pulling out things for her daughters and then granddaughters. “You never know,” she would urge, handing over some item we had passed over. Often she was right. My sister reminds me that we never talked about how much money we spent at Loehmann’s, but rather about how much we saved.
After hearing the news of the stores closing, my family members all made sure to have a final fling, spending gift cards and then some. As sad as this is for us, my niece points out that the story of the end of Loehmann’s is truly sad for all those who work in the 39 shops around the country.
In the old days, Loehmann’s allowed no returns, so you had to be sure that you’d still like the clothing when you got home. Perhaps that’s why opinions are shared so freely; at Loehmann’s no one is a stranger for long. But at some point in recent Loehmann’s history, they started taking things back, offering gold membership cards and even leaving the labels in.
It wasn’t the same, and it will never be the same again. Now the Loehmann’s in Chelsea is slated to reopen as Barney’s. Let’s hope they keep the dressing room.
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