Even though I haven't been to a Loehmann's in years, the news that the store was closing upset me the same way as learning that a good friend is moving away. Because Loehmann's wasn't just a store to me — it was a classroom.
The last Loehmann's I frequented was on Chestnut Street in Center City, where the Modell's is now. It didn't last long in that location, but before it closed I was able get a few good deals. Still, those were nothing like the gems I purchased in the glory days of the '90s or the '80s, when I found both my prom dresses in Loehmann's glittering Back Room.
Even though I was in high school, I felt as if Loehmann's knew I wasn't quite grown up enough for that space. So I didn’t dare go back there without an adult, like it was an R-rated movie. My stepmother was my guide then, helping me find a fantastic beaded flapper-style dress for my junior prom. The following year we found a baby pink dress with a sequined bodice and flowing sheer skirt.
But it was my Nana Pearl who gave me the real Loehmann's education. Nana started taking me with her to Loehmann's in Cherry Hill, N.J., when I was very young. By her side, I watched as she scrutinized the racks one row at a time, sliding hangers across the bar one by one. With her choices folded over her arm, she led me to the communal dressing room.
Here’s what you didn't find inside a Loehman's dressing room: privacy, modesty, magazine bodies or women in matching undergarments. Here's what you did find: a large open space, mirrors on the walls, women of all sizes in various stages of undress, and discount designer bounty laid across benches and dangling from hooks. Loehmann's seemed to be saying to its customers, "If you can't handle trying on clothes in this exposed environment, you don’t deserve the bargain on that amazing designer skirt."
And so I observed, most bewitched by how grown up everything was – the shapes of the women's bodies; the look and feel of the clothing; the animated conversations between friends; and the ability to make your own choices about what to wear, how to present yourself and how to get beautiful clothes without paying a fortune.
My Nana was a careful shopper, not impulsive, and she gave me excellent lessons. You want a good deal? Nana taught me that you have to work for it. You have to sift through rack after rack, excavate the handbag bin like a paleontologist, scrutinize the shoe shelves like a drill sergeant.
Today, thanks to Nana and Loehmann's, I happen to be an excellent bargain hunter, both in stores and online. There are real treasures to be found, but only if you are discerning enough to recognize quality worth buying and have enough patience to wade through the dreck.