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The end of Loehmann's [Commentary]

Early this month, I shopped at Loehmann's for the last time. The national off-price, fashion retailer chain was bankrupt and liquidating. As a kind of monument to local fashion history and my own past, the Timonium store beckoned me from Pennsylvania for a final shopping trip.

It was an emotional experience for this 69-year-old, who first shopped at Loehmann's in spring 1962. A fashionista before the word became trendy, my mother discovered the store on Joppa Road, near our Baltimore County home, and she knew her only daughter would find the perfect prom dress there. She predicted that Loehmann's was the fashion future, as Hutzler's department store luster was dimming. Mother bought me the Loehmann's frothy, apricot prom gown and also a short, white linen dress for a post-graduation party. That sleek, white sheath foreshadowed the mod 1960s styles. In Loehmann's "Back Room," the assistant had shared conspiratorially, "It's right off the runway, dear."

I can track many life milestones with purchases from Loehmann's. My wedding at Hiss Methodist Church. My college commencements at Towson and Hopkins. My education years in the Baltimore County and Howard County public schools and at Towson University. With grudging, teenage approval, students would compliment my fun, coordinated separates and matching wristwatches. Most were bought at Loehmann's. As an assistant principal, I remember a fight at Eastern Technical High School during lunch in 1994. Moving toward the miscreants, I found a football player blocking me. He said, "Mrs. Hardin, don't go over there. You'll mess up that pretty outfit." He grabbed the closest fighter before I could intervene, saving me and my olive-colored, Tahari pantsuit.

After becoming Pikesville High's principal, I had an epiphany. I realized that, among the Loehmann's racks and in its communal, mirrored dressing room, I probably had met many women who eventually had become the parents of my students. During my first year, at a Pikesville basketball game, a parent told me I looked very familiar. I was thinking the same about her. Seeing her in a sweater I had admired the week before in my favorite fashion store, I said, "Maybe you've seen me in Loehmann's. I shop there all the time." It began a conversation of common shopping experience that continued during my nine years at the school.

On a recent winter Thursday at Loehmann's in Timonium, where the store eventually moved, expanded and now was expiring, I talked to fellow shoppers. They were fashion-forward women who ranged in age from 20- to 80-something. They typically commented, "What am I going to do without Loehmann's?" Walking to the center of the store, I met a Pikesville grad and her grandmother, sorting through sportswear. As we discussed our feelings about Loehmann's, waves of nostalgia and loss flowed through the three of us. It was a bittersweet moment.

I thought about what made the store so special. Although many of us had shopping memories that formed the fabric of our lives, it was more than that. Loehmann's featured clothing and accessories photographed in the latest Vogue and/or sold in Nordstrom at full-price. The markdowns at Loehmann's were often mind-boggling cheap. The perfect, blingy $600 jacket for $100. The most amazing designer scarf for $30 with a Ferragamo tag still on it.

As if fashion were going to disappear apocalyptically from the Maryland landscape that day, the women in Loehmann's had rolling carts piled high with items from racks and shelves, marked with 10 percent, 20 percent, and "Up to 70% Off" signs. Their looks were focused and grim. As one woman said, "It's the end of my life as I know it. I'm here two times every week watching clothes, waiting for the prices to come down. It's my exercise." Perhaps that sounds frivolous. However, it's serious business for Loehmann's shoppers, who have studied fashion-pricing for decades, the way a stockbroker scrutinizes NASDAQ trades.

In the checkout line, a young woman commented about being first brought to Loehmann's by her mom and said she had hoped to do the same with her own daughter. Loehmann's was part of our shopping life cycle that sadly would conclude in approximately two weeks. Consumers had changed their buying habits as outlets proliferated, online shopping boomed and Kohl's or Target offered good-enough fashion knockoffs at even cheaper prices. Loehmann's staple was women who knew and loved fashion. Its demographic was not increasing and youthening fast enough.

Turning around one last time to look at the store's interior, I thought I could see the ghost of my mother, in her 40s, wearing her snazzy designer jacket dress. I smiled at the memory, gripped my chic Loehmann's bag, and walked outside into the fading polar vortex.

Dorothy E. Hardin is a writer and educator living in Palmyra, Pa. Her email address is dhardin44@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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