UPPER WEST SIDE — The bra fitters at the Town Shop, considered by some to be the best in the business, don't need tape measures to find out what size brassiere a woman needs.
All it takes is a glance with their expert eyes, even if the bosom in question is nestled inside a fur coat, said Danny Koch, whose family started the retail business that evolved into the Town Shop in 1888.
Back then, the Kochs paid $60 a month to rent a Bleecker Street store and the apartment above. The business expanded, adding stores on Madison Avenue and 57th Street.
The family opened the Town Shop's Broadway store in 1936 so Danny's grandmother, Selma, could be closer to home on West 90th Street and Riverside Drive.
Today, it's the company's only remaining retail outlet.
The pink-walled shop on Broadway at West 81st Street brims with bras — more than 30,000, Koch said — but also stocks a variety of underwear, hosiery, night gowns, bathing suits, and maternity wear. Bras run the gamut from $42 Wacoals to the $145 Prima Donna, a Belgian brand Koch called the Mercedes of bras.
Koch says the store has managed to stay in business for 75 years because of its passionate commitment to uniting women with a properly-fitted bra.
Women need expert but gentle guidance when it comes to bras, Koch says. Some wear the wrong size for years and are shocked — but pleased — when the Town Shop's fitters reveal their true size.
"It's a very unnatural service," Koch said. "They walk into the store and within a few minutes they're standing topless in front of someone they've never met before. It's a little bit of a leap of faith."
But Koch swears by the process. Just the other day, he said, a famous full-figured model walked into the store thinking she was a 42C and left with a bag full of 38DD bras.
"They really know what they're doing," said longtime customer Lynn Hirschberg, editor-at-large at W magazine, who swooped into the store Thursday looking to distract herself from deadline pressure with some bra shopping.
Hirschberg said she likes the store's variety — strapless, backless, boy shorts — but it's fitter Eyvette Manigault, a 40-year employee of the store, who keeps Hirschberg coming back, she said.
"She's a genius," Hirschberg said, as Manigault sifted through a pile of Chantelle brassieres and presented Hirschberg with a few tastefully lacy options. Hirschberg bought several without trying them on — she didn't need to, because Manigault knows what fits her regular clients.
"I've been doing it so long, I can tell from their body frame and the shape of their body," said Manigault.
Wearing the right size bra prevents stretch marks and "that droopiness," Koch said, but the proper fit will lift a woman's spirits as well as her breasts.
"The right undergarments have the power to really help women feel good," said Town Shop employee Nomi Ellenson, 23. "Women come in, they put on the right bra, and they see the shape of their body change into something they can feel proud of."
Ellenson's passion is in her blood — she's the great-grand daughter of Selma Koch, who presided over the Broadway store until weeks before her death in 2003. Selma Koch, known as the "bra lady," built the Town Shop's reputation for quality service, said her grandson Danny.
"That's the key to the whole operation," Danny Koch said. "I say to employees, what is the goal of the store? Some of them say, 'To sell as much merchandise as possible.' But I tell them, 'No, it's to make sure every customer walks out happy.'"
But even with the store's devoted following, staying afloat for a small business like the Town Shop is a challenge, Koch said.
"The first couple of thousand we make each day goes right to the landlord," Koch said.
"Unfortunately there's no protection for small businesses. It's treacherous."