HAMMONTON, N.J. - Far from the fancy designer salons and chic bridal boutiques in Philadelphia and New York City, Ideal Clothing is a little bit of haute couture tucked away in a Quonset hut on the way to the Jersey Shore.
Generations of women have turned off Route 30 here for prom dresses, mother-of-the-bride gowns and cruise wear.
But within the next few weeks, after Ideal sends one last high school girl out with her frothy prom gown carefully wrapped in a plastic garment bag, longtime employees will lock the front door and turn out the lights on a business that's been catering to the whims of event-bound women for 70 years.
"It really breaks my heart that it's going to be gone," said Loretta D'Angelo of Williamstown, who recently brought her daughter to the store to buy a formal gown.
D'Angelo, 57, said her mother and grandmother both shopped at the store on jaunts to Atlantic City from their home in Northeast Philadelphia.
"We have old photos that show them all dressed up promenading on the Boardwalk," D'Angelo said. "As long as the store has been here, we've shopped here."
The store's owner, Bruce Rosenwasser of Vineland, died March 11 of a heart attack. He was 54. No one from Rosenwasser's family wants to take over the business, which he bought from the original owner more than 20 years ago. No buyers have stepped forward, said Roseann Stocker, 61, who has worked at Ideal for nearly 26 years.
At Ideal, floaty ball gowns, sexy cocktail dresses, pantsuits and coats - most bearing designer labels - are jammed onto racks that sit in haphazard rows on a creaky linoleum floor beneath buzzing fluorescent lights.
Ideal has always seemed as if it needed a paint job. Sometimes the odd smell of fabric has hung heavy in the air, making it very stuffy inside the windowless metal building. And the dressing rooms have been a little small for trying on such big dresses.
But no one has noticed. Shoppers have been focused on the dresses - and the handwritten price tags.
This was the kind of place where you could really make a killing on a good day.
Grab a $1,295 red strapless Badgley Mischka for $300, or bag a $300 blue-sequined Donna Ricco number for $185.
Look deep in the racks and pull out a $60 Calvin Klein blouse for a mere 25 bucks. Or a $108 Tahari sweater for $47.
Or stroll down a ramp to the coat room, where - because it was so fabulously priced - your mother would make you try on a parka fit for Nanook of the North on a 90-degree day.
But Stocker said that despite the old-fashioned look of the place, Rosenwasser cared deeply about the customer experience, adding an elevated and mirrored "runway" area where customers could model their finds for onlookers.
"This is the kind of store where people have been shopping for years," Stocker said. "I can't believe it's going to close."
Purchases were also carefully recorded as to the style and color of a particular dress and the school dance where it would be worn, so that no two girls in the area would show up at an event wearing the same gown.
And as the ubiquitous radio jingle implored - with a catchy tune, made up by original owner Nat Press, that nearly anyone over 30 who grew up in South Jersey seems to have indelibly etched in the consciousness - budget-minded women who had a "passion for fashion" and "craving for saving" wouldn't hesitate to "hit the wheel" of their automobile and "swing on down to Ideal."
These days, the savings are even bigger, since a consultant who has been brought in to sell off the remaining merchandise has marked down some of the gowns and sportswear by as much as 90 percent.
D'Angelo, who was shopping with her daughter, Christina Myers, 19, for a prom gown, was sad that it would be her last time.
"I have thought about the fact that I won't be able to maybe someday shop here for a mother-of-the-bride gown," D'Angelo said.
When Ideal opened its doors in the 1930s in this sleepy Atlantic County farming town, it was virtually the only retail establishment for miles around that was open on Sundays.
Press went a few steps further in making the store unique: He built it on a major highway in the middle of blueberry and peach fields, back in the day when retail stores were usually opened on the little main streets of towns like Hammonton.
So successful was Press' enterprise that in the 1950s, he built a small airport on land adjacent to the store so he could fly in designer duds from all over the country.
"I'm going to miss it. It's just always been here, and we always knew we could come here and shop whenever we wanted and find what we needed," said Margaret Flanagan, 79, of Hammonton, who said she had been shopping at the store her whole life. "It was unusual that it was open on Sunday because nothing else was."