Everything I Ever Needed to Know I learned at Loehmann’s

The liquidation of the discount retailer Loehmann’s has left me in a state of shock.

I grew up as a Reform Jew living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; really reform.  Instead of going go to Synagogue on Saturdays, we went to Loehmann’s on Sundays. Instead of a Bat Mitzvah at 13 years old, My Mom took me to the Back Room. The Back Room of Loehmann’s was the holy grail of shopping. Knowing how to shop Loehmann’s was a skill my mother insisted I master.

Shopping at Loehmann’s was serious business. Only the truly-skilled could count on finding “The deal.”  “The deal” was the piece or pieces of clothing which were the same as those sold at Bloomingdales, but at 80% off.  Every week, I followed my Mom down the racks as she flipped every hanger, pausing to stare at a garment for precious few seconds while she mentally calculated whether the piece in question was worth taking to the dressing room. My Mother would speed flip down every row that held her size. She never instructed me directly, I just learned by following behind her, learning to capture a garment’s essential attributes in the flash of seconds in between hanger flips. As I grew, I too learned to flip.  Tilting my head just so, I assessed a garment’s color, cut, fabric and general suitability for my life. I was good.  I had been trained by the best.  Hubris at Loehmann’s was acceptable.  I remember the shipment of Perry Ellis (at the time it was actually designed by Marc Jacobs.)  We grabbed armfuls of items and ran to the joint dressing room.  We stood guard over those pieces.  Those items became my treasured clothing for years.

Loehmann’s was in the South Bronx in a warehouse up a steep hill.  My father would park the car and then commandeer a foldout chair among the other men and younger brothers brought along for the weekly Sunday excursion. He would sit for hours reading the latest novel that he had rented from the bookstore next door to our apartment building. Sid owned that bookstore and he sold occasional books and some toys for the kids. But mostly, Sid operated a lending library for 5 cents a day. He would get the latest hardcover best sellers in and call his fastest readers first. He would then pencil in the date and name of each reader on the inside blank page. The list of names would grow as the book was passed around the neighborhood. My father, as one of the quickest readers around, was always one of the first or second readers on the list. Dad never took more than three days to finish reading even the thickest books and therefore spent about 15 cents a read. These books accompanied Dad to Loehmann’s every Sunday. We needed Dad there on a chair because occasionally, my mother and I would emerge from the dressing room and ask him for his opinion on a particular item. Like a Rabbi considering a passage of the Torah, he would lift his head up from his reading, consider the item in question, and render a carefully thought out opinion always summed up in one of two words, “yes” or “no.” Occasionally, my father would say a whole sentence such as “You own something just like that.” Or he might say, “I love that on you.” After my father would state his opinion and lower his head back down to his page, my mother and I would head back into the dressing room together to reclaim our corner of the massive shared space.

Perhaps there is no more iconic space in the history of shopping than the Loehmann’s dressing room. Privacy was a luxury we lived without.  There was one large room with racks lining the wall. Store matrons patrolled the periphery constantly asking “are you done with that?” If the answer was “yes,” they would whisk the offending garment off the rack to be moved back to the sales floor as quickly as possible. Women of every age, shape and size would stand together in their underwear and bras or stripped naked as they tried on gowns and furs, coats and dresses, sweaters and trousers. Modesty was a luxury nobody even considered. We were a tribe, all devoted to the same goal, to find the perfect garment before someone else did. “Are you done with that?” was a comment often heard in the dressing room, as women stared longingly at the lucky woman who had the good luck and great fashion sense to grab the one stunning piece that we all sought. The answer always was the same “I am taking it. It’s perfect, right?” And we would all agree that she had found the perfect piece and she was lucky and maybe we would also be lucky if we stayed focused.

I had a love hate relationship with that dressing room. It took time for me to let go of my modesty and fear of stripping down to my undergarments. But once undressed, I liked the group approval for a flattering garment and I appreciated the singular pursuit of perfection. I loved that the women often emerged outside the room in search of a husband’s opinion, clutching their sweater to their chests in a half attempt to cover themselves, but with the real goal of shouting to their spouses some comment or other. “Go put more money in the meter!” or, “Hold this for me, I am taking it.” Or “what do you think of these pants? Do they make me look thin?” Not too many of the women in those dressing rooms were thin, but everyone agreed that looking thin was the first tenant of good dressing. Personal style would follow a distant second. If something made you look fat, it came off immediately.

These were the days before New Yorkers only wore black. Carrying off a color was considered a compliment of the highest order. “You wear that red coat so well,” was a comment that could be heard said.

As the shopping hours ticked by, and the years evaporated, eventually, my mother brought me to the back room. It was quiet and hushed in the back room with a special attendant manning the curtain which separated the space from the rest of the warehouse store. The lush velvet curtain hid the Back Room from view and conferred the instant illusion of superiority and importance that just could not exist in the rest of the store. Once in the Back room, people spoke softly and whispered their opinions rather than shouting them. “It’s lovely, but perhaps a little expensive,” was a constant comment. The fine furs lived in the Back Room and required an attendant if you wanted to try one on. The designer gowns were here as well. As much as I coveted the opportunity to shop in the Back Room, the experience left me without the feelings of deep satisfaction that I gained with my every trip down the aisles of the main store. I preferred the hunt in the main store. Shopping the Back Room was like shooting fish in a barrel. Anyone with money could do it. Training and skill were not required to score a great piece from the Back Room. I just didn’t see the point.

Eventually, I left home and went to College where I discovered Urban Outfitters. Loehmann’s as a destination, a place to spend my Sunday afternoons, a place to express my creativity and my hard earned shopping prowess, and a place to spend precious money, faded from my memory. When I heard Loehmann’s had filed for Bankruptcy protection the first time, I grieved privately. I didn’t tell anyone how I felt. In public, I laughed along with those friends who sneered at Loehmann’s and said things like “I can’t believe it survived this long anyway.” I didn’t tell anyone how sad I was and how much I had loved those shopping retreats. Loehmann’s was my spiritual home. It was where I learned to have confidence in myself, to make choices and live with them, to compliment people on their choices and to share opinions. Loehmann’s shaped me more than I have ever told and I miss it.

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