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Shoppers Mourn the Loss of Loehmann’s

January 29, 2014 By:
Barbara S. Rothschild, JE Feature
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The recent news that Loehmann’s — the original off-price treasure trove of upscale, stylish togs for women brought up on the tenet that you never, ever pay retail — will not come out of its most recent bankruptcy has loyal customers sitting shivah for the fashion outlet.

But first, they are scouring liquidation sales — and reliving what has been, for many, a tradition that spanned generations.

Betsy Feinberg’s trips to Loehmann’s started when, as a little girl, she would tag along with her mother and grandmother to the chain’s location in Penn­sauken, N.J., which later relocated to East Gate Square in nearby Moorestown. That’s now the last remaining Loehmann’s in the region. As of publication, only 34 stores around the country remained, with six more slated to close on Feb. 3, according to a corporate spokeswoman.

“It was our go-to store,” said Feinberg, 33, a clinical psychologist who now lives in Mount Laurel. “They had so many different departments and had the best petites department around.”  

As soon as Feinberg heard the chain would be shutting its doors, she scurried to the Moorestown shop with her mom and picked up a bargain-priced memento — a taffeta blazer marked down from $90 to $26.  

“It was a generational thing in our house,” said Feinberg, who lamented that she’ll never get to take her 8-month-old daughter, Daniella, on Loeh­mann’s treks.  

Department store buyer Frieda Loehmann and her son, Charles, opened their first store in a former automobile showroom on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1921. Loeh­mann bought seasonal overstocks from New York designers and sold them at bargain prices.  

After her son opened a second outlet in the Bronx in 1930, Loeh­mann continued running the original store — known, like its offshoots, for its famous “Back Room” of high-end designer fare. She eventually bought the building and lived upstairs.

An awestruck Barbara Klein of Evesham, N.J.,was introduced to the Brooklyn store — and Loehmann herself — in the early 1950s, when she was 19.  

“The doors were made of metal and were gilded,” the 79-year-old Brooklyn native recalled. “There were all these racks of clothes hanging from pipes that came down from the ceiling. The clothes were gorgeous, but there were no fitting rooms, and women were undressing between the racks. Men were upstairs, but it didn’t matter. It was always crowded and you walked out with arms full — you didn’t know what to take first.”

There was a carpeted stairway, Klein continued, leading to a landing with a red velvet chair, gilded like the doors.  

“Sitting there was this wo­man, wearing a black dress with huge pockets, counting all her money — everything was cash then, no charges — and that was Mrs. Loehmann. She had to be in her mid-to-late-70s at the time. She had exquisite taste,” said Klein, who counted a wool-and-velvet designer suit among her most stunning finds.

Ruth Rudolph of Hainesport, N.J., enjoyed expecting the unexpected at Loehmann’s. She recalled going to the Moorestown store one time to find, “much to my surprise and delight, a beautiful leather jacket for my husband, who never likes to shop.”  

Rudolph also loved store perks like a birthday coupon, though her plan to use it one year was thrown off track when she arrived after services at synagogue only to realize that she’d left her wallet at home because she hadn’t planned to shop on Shabbat.  

Arlene Taraschi is a Loeh­mann’s lifer. The Delanco, N.J., resident grew up in Brooklyn, where she and her mother regularly took the bus to the original store.

“It was a short bus ride away, and it was always fun because you never knew what you’d come home with,” Taraschi reminisced. “When saddle shoes were the rage for young teens, I remember getting a pair that were white and light blue. They were really neat because they did not have the heavy soles, but were much more stylish — so I thought.”

After Frieda Loeh­mann died in 1962 and the original store closed, the company went public, was sold to a series of holding companies and investors and had 100 stores in 17 states by 1999.

But the merchandise was no longer as exclusive as it had been, and the mystique suffered. When the company filed for its third bankruptcy in December, there were only 39 stores left.

 On a recent, bitterly cold afternoon, the Moorestown store was still attracting would-be buyers questing after final bargains. And there were plenty of Back Room deals to be had.

Some Cinderella could walk away with a pair of size 6M beige peau-de-soie Badgley Mischka pumps that retailed for $250 but were marked down to $18; Joe’s black waxed jeans, originally $200, on sale for $70; unhemmed $420 Missoni slacks available for just $23; and a $138 BCBG Max Azaria flounced black cocktail skirt marked down to $15.   

Taraschi believes Loeh­mann’s never really made it in suburbia because the Back Room concept never caught on there.  

“I was thrilled when it opened in Pennsauken,” she said. “It was nothing like the original, but you can’t go home again.”

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