I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, in one of the handful of commuter towns along the Hudson. One of these villages contained a bookstore—a good one, with a fine selection of titles and a section devoted to attractive wrapping paper and greeting cards. However, the owner was so unfailingly nasty and abusive to her customers that my mother and I came to regard it as a challenge to make it in and out of the shop without incurring her wrath.
We seldom succeeded. Anything might set her off: an innocuous question, a breach of obscure etiquette, a sneeze. Needless to say, she had a hard time keeping staff. Everyone was scared of her, and the atmosphere of the store was one of silent terror.
There was only one occasion on which we saw anyone break through the ice. My mom and I had been compelled to patronize the shop after failing to find Miss Rumphius anywhere else, and we had steeled ourselves for the arctic blast of the proprietor’s contempt. But when we walked in, we met with an amazing scene. A plump, jolly woman was leaning against the counter and thumbing through a novelty book—something about Jewish wit and wisdom, shaped like a large bagel.
“Oh, wait—listen to this one!” she was saying. “When the temple was destroyed … the Jews built Loehmann’s!” She went off into gales of laughter.
The shop owner remained stony-faced. Then:
“It’s true,” she said, matter-of-factly.
* * *
Frieda Loehmann opened the first iteration of the store in Brooklyn in 1921, selling designer overstock at bargain-basement prices. At its peak, the chain had one hundred stores in seventeen states. But I wonder if it ever acquired the mystique, or whatever you’d call it, that it carried here in New York.
Mystique, in fact, is sort of the opposite of what characterized Loehmann’s. Despite the promise of the fabled “back room”—the area that carried high-end designs—the experience was aggressively low-rent. The particular smell of silk knits; the racks of dowdy blouses; the dozens of designers you’d never heard of; the cruelly lit communal dressing room, filled with matrons zealously stripping naked; the mortification of bra shopping with my mom; the lack of any customer service whatsoever—this is what I remember. I also had my wallet pinched at the Fordham Road location when I was sixteen and looking for a cardigan to wear over my prom dress.
My mom and I did the vast majority of our shopping at Loehmann’s, with occasional forays to the superb New Rochelle Salvation Army, but I can’t remember ever buying anything I really liked there. Part of the problem is that we only shopped when I “needed” something, and the one law of bargain shopping is that you will never find what you are looking for; it is an exercise in surrendering to fate, not attempting to master it. Whatever we found would have a strange cut, a gratuitous ruffle, a peculiar shade. I remember well the frantic trip to try to find ankle boots to wear with a new skirt; I was about to meet my college boyfriend’s family. The booties we found were square-toed and kind of weird looking, but I felt good about them. It wasn’t until I saw my boyfriend’s sister staring fixedly at the sole of one of my shoes that I noticed the red 70% OFF sticker.
But it was just what you did.
If you’ve ever read The Bintel Brief, the sixty-year collection of Forward advice columns that helped Jewish immigrants navigate the challenges of a new, secular world, you may recall the plight of one Sadie Frowne, a garment worker who faced criticism for spending her hard-earned money on clothes. “Those who blame me are the old-country people who have old-fashioned notions, but the people who have been here a long time know better,” she writes. This would have been shortly before Frieda Loehmann opened that first Crown Heights store.
In December, Loehmann’s filed for Chapter 11, and now all the stores are liquifying their inventory. They’ll be closed by March. The Chelsea location is going to be a Barneys.
But I looked up that bookstore on Yelp and found it had a one-star rating. “Jeez, the older lady manning the place is a grouch. I literally stepped in & out in less than a minute,” said the first reviewer. Added the next: “Forget the merchandise, prices, or anything else by which you would ordinarily judge a business. The short, elderly woman who works here (presumably the owner) is an absolute nightmare. Ask anyone in the area; she’s infamous. One interaction with her, and you will NEVER want to set foot anywhere near this godawful place ever again.”
It is good to know that some things never change.