“I’m only speaking to you because you’re a customer,” Peggy Bergstein tells me. She slumps just slightly in her high-metal chair, which sits flush against a wall piled high with little cardboard boxes labeled with various names and numbers. If it weren’t for the nude-colored strapless bras and racier red satin corsets, I would think I was in a shoe shop or a warehouse, not a corseterie.
It's a little after 4 p.m. on the Monday before the start of Tisha B'av, a Jewish holiday that marks the destruction of the ancient Temples with a full day of fasting. I can tell she is eager to leave Orchard Corset Center to get home and prepare a meal, and herself, for the holiday. This is the only time in the three years that I’ve been one of Peggy’s devoted bra customers that she isn’t exuding a firm energy. Although her sheitel, the traditional wig worn by Orthodox women, is still meticulous, it seems to match the worn look on her face. But Peggy’s no-nonsense attitude—the charmingly brisk way she fits a woman for a bra in under 10 minutes, making the 40-plus minute wait to see her completely worthwhile—is still there.
In the background, her husband, Ralph, toils silently, organizing different wares behind the single counter running through the shop. A robust Orthodox man with tzitzit (prayer shawl fringes), payos (the traditional curls), and a black velvet yarmulke is not who you expect to greet you at a lingerie shop. But, Ralph and Peggy run Orchard Corset Center together. In fact, it was Ralph’s parents, Isaiah and Magda, who opened the shop in 1968. According to the store’s website, they were both concentration camp survivors who arrived in America in the 1940s. Today, Ralph and Peggy carry on where his parents left off.
But Ralph declines to speak to me for the interview, and neither he nor Peggy seem particularly interested in press, even though they have been cited in The New York Times. Peggy does boast to me that celebrities squire her to their hotels for fittings, but “don’t ask me to mention any of them,” she laughs. And she doesn’t.
I wouldn't be surprised if celebs reached out to Orchard Corset Center. Women of all ages and backgrounds literally line up to have Peggy help them fulfill their specific undergarment needs (or fantasies). My millennial friends have waited in line beside a cluster of Orthodox women in long dark skirts to be seen by Peggy. Other days, I see sleek blonde brides hoping to find the perfect lingerie to wear beneath their wedding dresses. On one of my first visits, I saw a woman hand her phone off to Ralph, saying it was her boyfriend and he wanted her to purchase yet another corset.
If you need a sturdy, flesh-colored bra to wear under your white button-down for work, Peggy's got it. But if you want to give the ladies a boost in something rose pink with black overlay or a full-on, lace-up bustier, she's got that, too. And if you want a lime green corset with black trim or a red satin one, Ralph is only too happy to help you finalize your purchase.
The Yelp reviews attest to the diverse crowd that frequents Orchard Corset Center. More than a few comment online about how shocked they are that a religious couple sells not only functional bras, but also sexy lingerie. There’s an especially poignant one written by a lesbian woman in 2010. Peggy and Ralph grew to recognize her and her partner. When her partner lost 125 pounds, they told the woman, “You take good care of her.” The reviewer wrote, “For lesbian couples out there, you know what a big deal this is. Especially from Orthodox Jews! Always and ever since, if I stop by there by myself, I'm always asked, ‘How's your friend doing? Best of health to her!’”
Peggy has a reputation for miraculously fitting women of all shapes and sizes, and she more than lives up to it. She not only has an eye for breasts—she has a hell of a memory for them, too. I went to her for a fitting in June of 2012. I came back in January 2013 after having gained a little weight, maybe in the five-pound range, and an even smaller bit of that went to my bust. Before I mentioned it, Peggy said, “Your breasts are slightly bigger.” My jaw dropped. She hadn’t seen me in seven months (and then for no more than 10 minutes). Then she said “Not bigger. Heavier, denser.” I didn’t exactly know how to verify that, but I certainly wasn’t going to question Peggy.
And despite Peggy’s brisk attitude, which may rub some women the wrong way, you can tell she is always thinking of her clientele. It’s hard to describe the way Peggy swiftly and meticulously manages to fit her customers unless you experience it personally, but let’s just say, forget the tape measurers. Before you even have your shirt off, Peggy has picked out a bra from one of the many nondescript boxes, adjusted the straps, and made your cleavage look infinitely better (if not bigger, than certainly perkier, happier).
I ask Peggy how she learned to size women up so efficiently and effectively. She stares at me like I've asked her how she learned to chew solid food. “It’s not something you learn,” she tells me in her no-nonsense way. “You either have it or you don’t.”
Peggy is always this direct and professional. “You don’t browse here. You come in. You get what you want,” she says. “Some people don’t get it.” Her attitude makes it just a little less awkward that you’re almost making it to second base with a middle-aged Orthodox woman.
So it’s no wonder that the diverse clientele wait patiently (relatively, it’s New York) for Peggy’s fittings and selections. Why would you want to go to Agent Provocateur and drop $170 to $790 on a bra when you could buy a perfectly-sized piece at an unusually reasonable $38 to $45 at Orchard Corset Center?
I ask Peggy how she manages to keep prices relatively low, whether she’s selling simple, utilitarian bras and girdles, elaborate, steel-boned corsets, or lace garters with sheer stockings. “I’m very particular with what I take into the shop. It has to go through my hands. I won’t take anything overpriced,” she tells me. “I think of my customers.”
This dedication along with the slightly-detached and nonjudgmental attitude is probably why more, say, adventurous women (and men) purchase satin corsets, garter belts, and other saucier pieces of lingerie at the shop. I’ve witnessed one of my bolder friends discuss the benefits of different types of garter belts with Ralph. The conversation was so sterile and matter-of-fact that they might as well have been comparing the best types of screwdrivers for installing light fixtures.
I ask Peggy if she ever has hesitations about selling risqué items for less than kosher purposes. She gives me a firm look. “I never ask what you’re getting it for or why you’re getting it,” she says. “You come in. You get what you want. You walk out.”
Peggy isn’t here to shmooze, but she isn’t here to judge or nose about either. In her own words, she’s here to “make your boobs look good.” Her candor and efficiency are refreshing, especially on the once-grungy, now-trendy Orchard Street. Across the street from Peggy’s shop is the bar Tammany Hall and around the corner is Babeland, the feminist sex shop. Next door is a shop selling fake vintage Ramones cover T-shirts and infant onesises. Orchard Street Corset stands out among the motley crew of bourgey-masking-as-edgy shops and bars, its style, both physical and attitudinal, a relic of the Lower East Side of the early 20th century, when it was the gathering place of newly arrived Eastern European Jewish immigrants. But Peggy is not tempted in the least to change her shop to fit in with the new(er) surroundings. “We make the neighborhood,” she tells me “With all the bars and stores, we bring the guests. Tourist comes from all over the world. They know they’re going to Orchard Corset Center.”
And you really do have to know. Unless you have the exact address and have your eyes peeled for the number—157—you’ll walk by it each time. Whereas you would have to be blind, deaf, and deprived of all sense of smell not to realize you’re walking by a Victoria’s Secret, Orchard Corset Center is not merely unassuming in its appearance, but rather it seems to shun attention.
Limited hours (the store closes for the Sabbath), no advertising, and, frankly, ugly and claustrophobically small surroundings are not the recipe for commercial success, but Orchard Corset Center offers something that both the trendiest boutiques and biggest chains cannot: Peggy and Ralph’s care for their customers. It is hardly effervescent, but it’s genuine.
“Most say, ‘Peggy, I need this’ and walk out,” says Peggy. “They have a lot of trust. They know I’m not going to let them down.”