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Making the Most of the Final Farewell to Century 21

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Closeout signs for Century 21. All photos by Kari Jensen.
Closeout signs for Century 21. All photos by Kari Jensen.

Contributor Kari Jensen joined the hundreds of New Yorkers and others who shopped the final days at Century 21 this past weekend.  Here’s her report.

Last September, Century 21 announced it would file for bankruptcy and prepare to close its 13 stores, siting losses during the pandemic and claiming its insurers failed to pay $175 million. The family-run chain of discount department stores was founded in 1961.

Hundreds lined up this past Sunday, for the final day, waiting (and social distancing) in a line at the Lower Manhattan location that stretched from the entrance at Cortlandt Street, around the block to Church Street, and up a few more blocks to Fulton Street.

It took this reporter about 1.5 hours to get inside, shivering in the late afternoon shadows of the Oculus and One World Trade Center.

Hundreds lined up in Lower Manhattan Sunday, waiting to shop on Century 21's final day before closing permanently. Photo by Kari Jensen
Hundreds lined up in Lower Manhattan Sunday, waiting to shop on Century 21’s final day before closing permanently. Photo by Kari Jensen

While in line, I spoke with people from Indonesia, Japan and New York City. Since first shopping at Century 21 (on my first-ever trip to NYC in 2002), I’ve continued to meet people there from around the world.

In the final hours on Sunday, store management further cut the discounts from 90 percent off everything in the store to 95 percent off. (!)

By late afternoon, customers leaving the store were overburdened, carrying four, five or more large size Century 21 shopping bags. One woman pushed a red Century 21 cart, overflowing with newly purchased merchandise. “There’s nothing in there. There’s nothing in there,” she said, gesturing toward the store (which made me wonder if what she said was true).

I anticipated pandemonium, with shoppers rushing at tables and grabbing items, similar to the scene from the “I Love Lucy” Black Friday TV show episode.

A customer exits with some final Century 21 deals. Photo by Kari Jensen.
A customer exits with some final Century 21 deals. Photo by Kari Jensen.

As it was, when I finally got inside, I found that most of the fixtures had been removed and the store was mainly empty – of merchandise and people. Only the basement, first and second (of five) floors were still open to customers.

I beelined to the four (yes, there were only four) women’s clothing stands, representing what had formerly been the women’s accessories section. I passed by a rack with Max Studio, Haute Hippie, J Brand and New York Laundry streetwear, and began looking at formalwear hanging on another stand. There were white dresses by Ellery and Parosh in my size!

A salesperson hung two more gowns on the rack, but another customer rushed in and grabbed them, like a hawk swooping down on its prey from up high. So I stood to the side, waiting to see if the shopper would put back one or both of the dresses. When she returned one, I grabbed it: a sumptuous blue silk mermaid gown. Suggested retail price: $10,000.

“Who’s that? What’s the Century 21 price?” another customer said, pulling out her calculator.

“Zac Posen. About $2,800,” I said.

“At 95 percent off, that’ll be $140,” she said.

As I headed toward the cash registers, a customer said there was one rack of men’s clothing left upstairs. A salesperson on the second floor said: “Fill a shopping bag from this rack and it will all cost less than $30.”

But most of the men’s sweaters were sizes 6XL and 5XL, so I only bought a 4XL Verdé orange hoodie sweatshirt (for stay-at-home lounging; $29.99 Century 21 price discounted to $1.50).

When I got to the register, the cashier called a manager to help her with some outdated price tags and calculations. When she rang up the Zac Posen gown, I gritted my teeth, crossed my fingers and asked, “How much?”

“Thirteen ninety-one,” she said.

“$1,391? Maybe the price tag was wrong or I had miscalculated the estimated $140 discounted price?” I worriedly thought to myself, not speaking aloud.

“Thirteen dollars and ninety-one cents,” the cashier clairified.

My three dresses and one sweatshirt totaled $42.52. My receipt stated: “You saved $8,976.09.”

I happily exited, carrying my own overly full, reusable, red-and-white Century 21 shopping bag. And for the past few days, I’ve been grieving the loss of my favorite store, comforting myself by snuggling in the oversize Verdé hoodie.

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