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Shoppers never discounted this spot

PBS revisits the glory days of Filene’s Basement

Until it closed its doors in 2007, Filene’s Basement at Downtown Crossing was a bargain hunters’ mecca for decades. Until it closed its doors in 2007, Filene’s Basement at Downtown Crossing was a bargain hunters’ mecca for decades. (Voices From The Basement)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / December 9, 2010

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There’s something fantastically primitive about a herd of sweaty shoppers digging through the inventory of Filene’s Basement, hungry for discounted designer labels. Watching the vintage black-and-white footage of consumers on the hunt in the documentary “Voices From the Basement’’ is like witnessing some kind of Paleolithic tribal event. Or maybe the Beatles at Shea Stadium.

The movie, which airs tonight at 8:30 on Channel 2, is a short, sweet love letter to the ragtag Boston institution, which closed its doors at Downtown Crossing on Sept. 3, 2007. Directed by Michael Bavaro, the film is a nicely assembled portrait of the beloved subterranean gold mine — its history, the bonding among the employees across the decades, the cheekiness and near-rioting of the customers, and the deep value of a place where social hierarchies broke down. “It was the great leveler,’’ Barney Frank says, “in a town where I think leveling was needed.’’

Some of the best material in “Voices From the Basement’’ comes in the interview segments. Bavaro, who also made the documentary “Rex Trailer’s Boomtown,’’ has done a great job of talking to all kinds of people, many of whom help us see the Basement as a reflection of Boston’s cultural essence. He speaks to businesspeople, historians, former employees, and lots of local luminaries in addition to Frank. Michael Dukakis calls the Basement “one of the most democratic places in the world’’ — but only once Boston had worked through issues of segregation.

You can consistently sense the affectionate feelings toward the Basement and all its insanity, from Mayor Menino, from journalist Mike Wallace, from actress Estelle Parsons, and from many others. WCVB’s Susan Wornick recalls the games that shoppers would play to beat the automatic markdown plan: “People would hide things,’’ she says, “knowing that if they didn’t sell, the price would go down automatically and so they would be able to get the lower price. It was very devious! It was a different time.’’ Dukakis wryly sings the praises of the Basement’s bargains: “Kitty says I’m the cheapest guy in America,’’ he says. “I think that’s an exaggeration, but there’s no question I’m frugal.’’

Just as it’s fun to hear Wornick recall falling in love with a bathrobe and wearing it as a coat, it’s touching to listen to the former Filene’s employees reminisce. The late Joe McGrail recalls hearing people outside of the Boston area calling the store “Fill-enes,’’ instead of what he’d know it as: “FI-lenes.’’ Former Basement worker Shirley O’Neil says the store fostered long-term employees: “If you were a stock boy, you could work your way up and get into the men’s suits. It was a lifetime job.’’ Footage from the last days of the Basement — which still exists in other locations, but has not yet and may never be reestablished downtown — is filled with their smiles through tears.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

VOICES FROM THE BASEMENT

Directed by: Michael Bavaro

On: PBS, Channel 2

Time: Tonight, 8:30-9:15