Bustle in the Basement

When you walk into Filene's Bargain basement of Downtown Crossing in Boston, the first thing you notice is that there are two kind of people there the initiates and the veterans.

The initiates stand in the middle of the floor, confused and awed by all the hyperkinetic bustle around by all the hyperkinetic bustle around them, not knowing quite where to start looking.

The veterans have no qualms. They blow right into the hundreds of bins and racks, systematically but frantically searching for that best bargain.

If you want high fashion but you're on a low budget there is no place else shoppers says. "You go to Louie's you go to Brooks, and then you come here, and everything's cheap."

The only other good place in the world to shop is the Lincoin [Nebraska] Junior League store, says Donna Harier, a musician who says she plans New England recitals just so she can shop at Filene's.

The main selling point of the 76-year-old Filen's Basement is its "automatic markdown policy filen's buys overstock and irregulars form what it calls grit and glamorous stores, and then resells it at discount determined by a now famous formula. If the item sits on the rack for f12 days its initial prose will be cut by 25 percent. After six more days, the price is reduced 50 percent with in another six 75 percent. And if a piece of clothing doesn't sell by 30 days after it first hits the floor, Filen's gives it to charity.

Filen's Basement didn't make any money on this policy for its first 10 years of life. But today. Filene's Bargain Basement has expanded to 15 stores in New England and plans to open more in a day-after Thanksgiving sale this year. Filene's Basement grossed an astounding $2,385,049.

How could a discount which looks more like a bus station than a boutique possibly be so successful?

"Darling, I don't think the four fits you.

"Oh come on mom, even if it doesn't, it's so cheap--I just HAFTA get it."

"Well, I suppose one more thing couldn't hurt."

And, explains frequent Basement shopper Richard Van Loan "I think I spend Richard Van Loanb, I think I spend more money because it's cheap and therefore I feel I can buy more.

But as with any system, there are always people trying to beat the Filene's Basement system Waiting three days to come back for silk blouse might mean the discount will go from 50 to 75 percent--as long as you can make sure noone else buys it. And devising your own strategy for vouchsafing your vestments shoppers say, is half the fun.

"There's a certain risk involved if there's an item you really want, you have to wait," says bargain hunter Richard E. Shepard says, "You have to move items to the back of the rack." But he quickly cautions. "You can't leave them there for more than a day."

A surer method, says Gerard A. DelTergo, is to be on good enough terms with the clerks so that you can leave an article of clothing there for a week or two--so that by then, the item is marked down to the optimal price.

Shoppers not fortunate enough to have connections often have to resort to baser methods, such as those employed by musician Harler. She boasts that on a recent Basement voyage, she had a leotard among the stockings. The next day, when the price had fallen 25 percent, she came back to buy it.

Kurt Lawrence praises Harier's approach. "If I can hide something I will," Lawrence says. "You stick it in the wrong rack and you can save $25 or $30 by waiting."

Of course, there are some drawbacks to shopping in Filene's Clothing often is defective and there are no fitting rooms, customers complain.

Some people get around that problem by using a coat or a parent as a dressing curtain. But many other shoppers say they are too shy to undress in a room full of strangers and so they just take chances and wait till they get home to see if it fits.

For teenager Pfiliades this is no problem in fact, she says, she thinks it's fun to have to try on the clothes on the selling room floor. As Harler says, "This is a drawback only for people with weird bodies.

And beyond and that, Filene's which is just off the Washington Street Red Line subway stop, is as much a part of Boston as the Bruins Says DelTergo, "Filene's has been here at least as long as I have When I was barely big enough to crawl, I was dragged here by Mommy and Daddy to buy school clothes."

One woman who works upstairs in the more civilized--and expensive--regular part of Filense's says she has been shopping there for 23 years, ever since immigrated to America. First introduced to Filene's by her classmates at Boston University she recalls, "Students would hit it like a tourist attraction."

Now, she shops downstairs with her 18-year-old daughter and says that little has changed. It's still like a flea market atmosphere, but people are spending big bucks."

It may have all the allure of a bus station and all the grace of a fallout shelter, but Filene's basement is as much a part of Boston as the Bruins