Volume 76, Number 8 | July 12 - 18, 2006

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Peggy Bergstein, co-owner of Orchard Corset Discount Center, fitting a customer

Shopping at Orchard Corset is an uplifting experience

By Ronda Kaysen

Ralph Bergstein looms large in his tiny, utilitarian shop on Orchard St. With thick, puffy hands and a wild, red beard, he hunches behind the narrow counter, rifling through the hundreds of hand-labeled, rectangular boxes filled with endless brands of brassieres. When his wife calls out for a bra, he tosses one her way.

“Our customers do not come in for the décor,” he said on a recent sweltering Sunday afternoon. “They come for the uplift.”

The Bergstein family has been fitting women for bras since they took over Orchard Corset Discount Center in 1968. The shop opened at 157 Orchard St. in 1931 as strictly a corset shop owned by a Mr. Novack, but now it specializes in large sizes — think 52-J — maternity bras, bridal undergarments and corsets.

Bergstein, 55, has been designing the store’s line of corsets for eight years — his father taught him the trade — and orders all the merchandise. Ralph, a religious Jew, does not touch women (he declined to shake this reporter’s hand) and leaves the fitting to his wife, Peggy, and his mother, Magda, a 78-year-old Holocaust survivor.

Peggy and Ralph declined to have their photos taken because they worried their children might be teased for their parents’ choice of profession.

Peggy, a waifish, matter-of-fact woman with heavily lidded eyes, has been the “main fitter” for 22 years, she said, and does not use measuring tape to fit her customers. Trained by her mother-in-law, who is now in semiretirement, Peggy, 40, simply looks the customer over and sternly grips her bosom.

“It’s an art,” she said. “You have to look at the whole body.”

She estimates that 95 percent of women wear the wrong bra — if not the wrong size, then at least the wrong shape. Walking down the street, she often spots women in bras that clearly do not fit properly.

“I’m so tuned in,” she said. “Sometimes, I want to stop them and give them my card and tell them to come here.”

Peggy’s biggest gripe: back fat, the folded skin created by a bra too tightly clasped.

“No one, not even your best friend, no one but me will tell you if you have back fat,” she said.

Orchard Corset’s prices are as unassuming as the shop. A young woman standing at the counter to pay for a strapless corset and a bra was stunned by the price. She paid a mere $57 for both.

“If I was at Bloomingdale’s, it would probably cost me $57 just for the bra,” she said.

“And here you get a fit — you get everything,” Ralph chimed in.

A good bra fitter is part fitter, part therapist. Once inside the store’s utilitarian dressing room — literally a sheet hung from a metal pole decorated with more of the telltale rectangular boxes — customers confess their imperfections.

“People come in here and they think they’re telling me some secret — they all think they have some deformity,” Peggy shrugged. “But they’re all perfect just the way they are.”

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