Losing Loehmann’s

It feels like everyone has a Loehmann’s story — or at least they did.

Like a hunter who proudly displays a deer head on the living room wall, many women with a Loehmann’s purchase have a story behind the find. By March, 39 Loehmann’s retail clothing locations closed. Loehmann’s, like the grand resorts and bungalow colonies of the Catskills, will become a legend in American Jewish history. You could track the Jewish neighborhoods in America by the Loehmann’s locations.

Losing Loehmann’s is like losing a well-dressed aunt. There were parts of her that exposed your deepest insecurities, especially when she forced you to undress in a room full of strangers. But the love you had for this relative made you feel at home every time you walked through the door.

Harriet Mandel, a well-dressed lifelong Loehmann’s shopper, recalled shopping at the flagship store to find a metziya — a bargain, “I grew up in the Loehmann’s culture, way back to the old auto salesroom on Nostrand Avenue, with sheets strung for dressing rooms, Back Room dresses for $9.99, and salespeople on the lookout for that special item.” Mandel noted that in the early days of Loehmann’s, founded in Brooklyn by the late Frieda Loehmann in 1921, it served a need for many immigrant Jews, “as if Loehmann’s was waiting for these elegant women from European cities who came penniless. It was an opportunity that allowed them to dress in their tastes at prices they could afford.”

Loehmann’s also had the ability to unleash the beast within all of us. T.V. sitcom “The Nanny” compared a Loehmann’s sale to the running of the bulls, and Fran Drescher’s character warns her charge Gracie, “You are going to see things today that will haunt you for the rest of your shopping life.” Years ago, I myself was so immersed in the hunt for a dress I didn’t notice my son had left his stroller. In the same breath I alerted the saleswoman my kid was gone, I also instructed her not to put the dresses I had chosen back on the rack. I shouldn’t have been thinking about bargain hunting while searching for my son, later found giggling under a rack of shirts—but such was the power of Loehmann’s.

When Loehmann’s announced in 2013 that it was closing, customers paid their last respects. Barbara Schwartz visited her New Hyde Park location to say goodbye to a favorite fitting room attendant, Doris. “She stood on her feet for probably close to 50 years. She organized, hung up, and carefully loved all of her merchandise. Doris spent her life in the confines of an open dressing room taking pure delight when she saw you looking great in a garment. I could sense her smile of satisfaction. Then, I would ask her opinion. She knew just when to encourage the purchase and why.” Schwartz also remarked, “There are stores over the years that imitate Loehmann’s, but there will never be another one. That will bring me to tears. I am both naked and crying.”

The store played a role in shaping our female identity. It was in the Loehmann’s fitting room that I caught a glimpse of what I’d look like when I was post-menopausal, while I tried not to stare at women with spider veins trying on cocktail dresses. And every time we went to Loehmann’s, my mother joked that the seats outside the fitting room were made for Jewish husbands. As a child, I didn’t dream of marrying a prince; I wanted to marry the kind of guy who’d sit on the bench outside a Loehmann’s fitting room. This image encompassed all one would want from a life partner — patience, honesty, and the mutual appreciation for a good deal.

It will take time before I’m able to remove my gold Loehmann’s Insider Club card from my wallet. And where will we get our dresses for my daughter’s bat mitzvah? I’m mournful for all the years of shopping that have been taken from us. I don’t think we’ll have the same experience nestled up on the couch perusing Gilt and Zappos websites. Like Jewish delis, and the seltzer man, Loehmann’s is another part of American Jewish culture that will now live only in stories. Younger women will feel about these tales of Loehmann’s shopping experiences the way I felt when I heard my older relatives retelling jokes from Borscht Belt comedians. Even as a child, I knew I’d never really get them.