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Loehmann's: Shopping With Benefits

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In the communal dressing room at Loehmann's, stripped down to our Spanx and cellulite, as we tried on up to eight garments, the maximum allowed, we turned to each other, firing off questions faster than the White House Press Corps.

"Do the stripes make me look dumpy?... Is this okay for a June wedding in New Rochelle?... Take a look -- is there back fat?"

Strangers when we met, inside the brown curtain that separated us from the rest of civilization, we formed a focus group, giving our honest opinions. Unlike salesladies at fancy stores who worked on commission, we could be trusted except when one of us asked, "Are you going to take that?" In Loehmannese, that translated to, "I want it!"

The camaraderie, combined with ridiculously slashed prices, made this "shopping with benefits."

You didn't come for something essential. The hit and miss component made it erratic, sport shopping with a sense of adventure. Like fishing, anything too small was reluctantly left behind. There was no room for indecisiveness as others were ready to grab your discards. Elsewhere you added up what you were spending; here, the focus was on what you were saving, the difference between the manufacturer's list price and what was on the tag. Boldly colored stickers showing that an item had been reduced repeatedly could make a missing button or belt almost irrelevant.

The woman working in the fitting room counted what you'd brought in, handed you a number, and ignored you until you were leaving. She wasn't there to help with zippers. That service would be provided by the other customers. If one of the uninitiated called out, "I need this is in a larger size!" the lady who didn't do zippers would make it clear she also didn't do looking. One of us would mentor the novice, instructing her to get dressed and go check for herself, explaining that tying up the items on her hook would reserve her space at the mirror. I'm not sure how we learned that's what you do but, like sex, we picked up on cues.

The indifference of the employees meant there was no obligation to buy. The only time you wasted in Loehmann's was your own. Discount shopping, however, comes with a price. Making a decision, though not on a level of "Sophie's Choice," could be stressful. Did it make sense to buy another pair of black pants simply because they were 80 percent off the original price? Even if they would have to be cleaned and shortened? How important was it that the jacket was too tight to button? The tension was palpable. In the Back Room, where you went for marked down designer garments, adrenalin flowed as freely as in Madison Square Garden.

It was the Chelsea store in New York, a short walk from our apartment, I thought of as mine. As a member of the Insider Club, each time I made a purchase, the cashier would ask for my phone number. It's been decades since a man has done that. Okay, it wasn't The Harvard Club or The Century, but each year, I would get a card and a 15 percent birthday discount. This March, there will be no card. Bargains can be found elsewhere, but Loehmann's was special. Aware of my feelings for the store, before we married, my husband said, "There's something you need to know. I am never going to be one of those men sitting there with a newspaper while you shop." Given how important this was to him, I've always suspected that's what he had written in Hebrew on our Ketubah.

Online shopping affected our relationship. I sacrificed the personal experience for the ease of ordering on my computer. If you spent over $50, shipping would be free so I made sure to meet the minimum. Not long ago, a box arrived and I showed my husband the five pairs of black pants, each on a hanger and wrapped in plastic.

"I'm only keeping one pair. They cost $20. Someone assembled and packed all this. A cashier will take time to handle the return. There will be paperwork and restocking. How can they stay in business?"

The answer came all too soon. Sadly, Loehmann's wasn't too big to fail.

To cope with the grief, I'm trying to remember the good times. My prize purchases were two fabulous coats designed by Marithe Francois Girbaud, unaffordable elsewhere, that I got for under $200 maybe 10 years ago. If I'd taken what I saved on those coats and deposited it into a high interest-bearing account, today I could afford to shop at Barney's, which is returning to the space it had occupied before my Loehmann's took it over.