Recently, I joined a sold-out crowd at the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation in Waltham, Massachusetts for Waltham Film Factory’s showing of the documentary, Voices from the Basement. The museum, filled with antique typewriters, vintage lathes, and classic cars, is the perfect setting for this look at what was the hub of the bargain universe for decades, Filene’s Basement. It seemed right to watch a film about the former retail giant in a former textile factory. The film, a tribute to the retailer, tells the story of a place that became a landmark and even a way of life for throngs of Bostonians. Filled with historic footage from the Downtown Crossing shop, the film chronicles the opening of the Basement in 1908 to its closing in 2007 and is a fascinating look at retail history and Edward Filene’s radical corporate philosophy.
Edward Filene, the son of founder William Filene, opened Filene’s Automatic Bargain Basement in 1908 as a way to sell overstocked merchandise from his father’s main store in the unused basement. As the store gained popularity, buyers began purchasing high quality goods from other large department stores from all over the country and marking it way down for quick sale. That meant the stock was always fresh and consumers could buy designer goods at a fraction of the original prices.
The automatic part came from the method of automatically marking down merchandise according to a fixed schedule. Filene had other new ideas too. He wanted to keep his employees healthy, so he opened a clinic across the street from the Downtown Crossing location. Sick workers could receive company-sponsored medical care years before any other business owners even considered it. Basement employees ran a store newsletter and the Filene’s Coop Association allowed workers to voice their opinions on store policy. Filene also started a credit union for his employees. This business-as-social-experiment also encouraged employees to stay on for fifty years or more. People started in the stockroom and worked their way up to the sales floor. Employees were fiercely loyal to the company.
The concept that hard work and ability led to promotion added to the store’s reputation as an egalitarian business. The wide range of shoppers cemented it. Everyone shopped there. The Boston Brahmin browsed next to waitresses, moms, and students.
If you were a savvy shopper, you frequented Filene’s Basement. If you were a female savvy shopper, you got used to changing in the middle of the sales floor. Another of the idiosyncrasies of Filene’s Basement was the lack of dressing rooms for women. I can remember going to the store as a child. My mom would grab wraparound skirts in a larger size for us. We’d put them on over our clothes so we could try on pants and skirts under them without exposing ourselves. Brides-to-be grabbed deals during the yearly Running of the Brides event. There’s a funny edit during that part of the film that shows footage of the Running of the Brides cut with scenes from the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Celebrities like Boston Mayor Tom Menino, actress, Estelle Parsons, reporter, Mike Wallace, Governor Mike Dukakis, and Boston broadcasters, Peter Mehegan and Carl DeSuze wax rhapsodic about the virtues of Filene’s Basement. They’re not the only ones. Voices from the Basement features longtime employees as well; many expressing their love and gratitude to managers and staff members who cared about their customers and each other.
After the film, director, Michael Bavaro and executive producer, Dr. Susan Edbril answered questions and listened to audience stories about their memories of the iconic hole in the ground. There were some great ones. A former marketing executive with Filene’s Basement recounted that once, when she was working, the fire alarm sounded, but no one would leave. They didn’t want to lose the bargains they’d found. Seeing this fun piece of Boston history in such a historic place was a lovely experience.