Goodbye to Century 21, New York's Beloved Discount Institution

Two fabulous women shop at the Century 21 department store across the street from the site of the World Trade Center towers, February 2002
Two fabulous women shop at the Century 21 department store across the street from the site of the World Trade Center towers, February 2002
Image: Mario Tama (Getty Images)

Countless retailers have filed for bankruptcy due to economic disruption caused by the ongoing global health pandemic, and as of this week, New York City’s iconic Century 21 discount department store chain is the latest victim. According to Bloomberg, Century 21—not to be confused with the prodigious real estate company, though I’ve certainly been guilty of making the mistake before—has plans to shut down all 13 of its stores in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Florida, and will hold going out of business sales in the meantime.

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That’s a damn shame. Since the family-owned business was founded in 1961, Century 21 has become synonymous with the New York City shopping experience, a place where up-and-coming businessmen could acquire satin ties and reasonably-priced European suits while bumping elbows with sensible fashionistas on the hunt for designer bags at 85% of the cost. (And at the peak of its popularity, especially around the holidays, Century 21 was always, always crowded.) It was fashion, but you had to work for it, heaving through giant racks for the really good finds and remaining ready to fight any competitive fellow shoppers. When you found something good, you did not put it down.

Illustration for article titled Goodbye to Century 21, New Yorks Beloved Discount Institution
Image: Chris Hondros (Getty Images)
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Named after the then-forthcoming 1962 World’s Fair exhibit in Seattle, Washington, “Century 21, The World of Tomorrow,” the store became the first off-price retailer in Downtown Manhattan. At Century 21—particularly the Financial District flagship—middle-class shoppers and stylish tourists sorted through the racks for luxury brands at a highly discounted price in a venue with a much more specifically brash New Yawk ambiance than a suburban Marshalls, TJ Maxx, Ross, and Burlington Coat Factory. Somebody might yell at you! You might yell at somebody else!

February 2002 Century 21 reopening, following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks
February 2002 Century 21 reopening, following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks
Image: Mario Tama (Getty Images)

For decades, Century 21’s flagship store was its lower Manhattan location, 22 Cortlandt Street, across the street from the site of the World Trade Center. After the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, 500 shoppers were evacuated and the store was blanketed in debris, closed and eulogized as a communal place for New Yorkers. When it reopened the following March, costumers new and old could be seen “cheering and applauding while executives of the discount department store stood on the sidelines and clapped right back,” The New York Times reported at the time.

Illustration for article titled Goodbye to Century 21, New Yorks Beloved Discount Institution
Image: Mario Tama (Getty Images)
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And finally, if that’s not enough to immortalize Century 21, allow me to recall the truest validation of a New York City institution: a lengthy cameo in Sex and the City. Even self-anointed fashion expert, Season 5 (2002) Carrie Bradshaw (as portrayed by Sarah Jessica Parker) knew the glory of discount department store shopping, may its simple pleasures rest in peace. “Century 21, the downtown discount store, was the best part of jury duty,” she says in one particularly perfect moment, “With an arm full of discount clothing, I realized I could no longer discount my feelings.” Of course, nowadays she’d be likely to use an online Century 21 equivalent, a digital authenticated luxury consignment shop like The Real Real or Fashionphile, but the sentiment stands.

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As for Century 21... so long, and thanks for all the deals!

Illustration for article titled Goodbye to Century 21, New Yorks Beloved Discount Institution
Image: Mario Tama (Getty Images)

Senior Writer, Jezebel. My debut book, LARGER THAN LIFE: A History of Boy Bands, is out now.

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DISCUSSION

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JurassicSnark

WHAT! I was literally just there this weekend. It is honestly a good place to get designer markdowns and The RealReal can’t quite compare (I love online secondhand stuff but I’ve also been burned with buying any style/brand I haven’t already worn IRL... sucks to spend $40 on a pair of jeans only to find out they don’t flatter you!)