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The Wilds of T.J. Maxx and Filene's Basement

Could there be three more depressing words in the shoppers' lexicon than "misses' career blazers"? This little phrase, with its antiquated "misses" and its promise of nine-to-five torpor, hangs over a rack of garments at T.J. Maxx and is guaranteed to send young customers streaming for the exits, determined to dress in nothing but Salvation Army finds. Which is a shame, because, as with so many discount behemoths, it is possible, assuming you can overcome the hideous lighting and total lack of charm or semblance of organization, to shop successfully here.

Plus the place, believe it or not, has history. Along with the mammoth Bed Bath & Beyond and Filene's Basement—more on that cheerless spot in a minute—T.J. Maxx resides in the former home of Siegal Cooper, a famous belle epoque department store at 19th Street and Sixth Avenue. (When it opened in 1896, 150,000 people showed up; police had to close the street.) In fact, this stretch of Sixth between 14th and 23rd was once known as the Ladies Shopping Mile, so dense was it with retailers, all of whom vanished long ago, leaving only their fading fingerprints on the buildings themselves. (Look up: The pediments of T.J. Maxx's building still sport monograms.)

Sometimes it seems like a case of history repeating: Across the street, Today's Man is biting the dust, its windows dotted with poignant signs that say "closing forever; final liquidation." On the other hand, three thriving businesses are happily ensconced up the block in the former Simpson Crawford Dry Goods store: a Radio Shack, a Bally fitness center, and a Motherhood Maternity. (Of the three, surely the most shocking to 19th-century sensibilities would be those maternity mannequins with bulging tummies clothed in bare tank tops.)

But anyway, back to T.J. Maxx. You have to take two escalators to get there, and then the first thing you see is a sign that says "returns and exchanges," which is not very encouraging. (What, I'm not going to want to keep the stuff I buy here forever?) But, despite first impressions, persistence pays off. The key is to treat this place as a giant flea market: You're not discouraged wading through piles of garbage to find something great at a garage sale, right?

We wade, and here is what we find: a wine and black cut-velvet floral Danskin leotard, for twirling under the stars ($9.99); a white and navy polka-dot Tahari skirt whose style surely owes something to Donna Karan's seminal 1940s-redux spring collection ($59.99); and a pair of jeans with a sequined Mexican folk art Madonna by Passion Voyage ($79.99), the same once eminent company we saw languishing at the Designer Warehouse on Broadway last week.

Buoyed by these victories, we escalate down to Filene's Basement, which in this case is in the literal basement. Bins of sad tees greet us at the door, an inauspicious beginning, though we also see a sign that says the store has lately received a shipment of Byblos and Genny, two Italian houses with long if somewhat uneven pasts. Inside, there is no Byblos apparent; there is some Genny, including a pair of boldly printed trousers for $74.99 and an asparagus-colored summer dress with a slash in front for $99. If you are willing to relinquish the craving for an Italian label, a blue rayon summer shirt with embroidered flowers is the spitting image of the ones at Ghost on Bond Street, only here the tag says Josephine Chaus (Josephine who?) and the price is $29.99. Still, one fake-Ghost shirt and an asparagus dress do not a completely happy heart make. As you schlep through miles of misses' career blazers, you may well be reminded of why so many normal, reasonable, fun people say they hate shopping. But keep at it! Pretend it's that flea market! And pretty soon you will remember why you in fact love shopping. For just when we have decided to flee to the actual flea five blocks north, we spy a rack of Earl Jeans for a sunny $39.99 and, as if that isn't enough, a white eyelet Earl blouse, soft and summery enough to meet even our rigorous demands, for a deeply encouraging $29.99.

 
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