By Susanne Beck
Danny Koch’s grandmother, the legendary bra fitter Selma Koch, always told him that there was a good side of Broadway and a bad side of Broadway. Move their women’s intimate apparel business — the iconic, almost 130-year-old Town Shop — across the street, from west to east, and be prepared for the consequences, she warned. Danny and his father didn’t heed her advice.
It’s unlikely that Selma Koch (who upon her death was described by The New York Times as “95 and a 34B”) had a pandemic in mind when she wagged her proverbial finger years ago. But there is no doubt that the Town Shop, now housed on the east side of Broadway at 82nd Street, clearly marked by bright pink, retro signage, has suffered recently.
“This Christmas season was probably the most crushing month that I have ever had in my career,” says Koch, 61, and the fourth-generation owner of the Upper West Side fixture, with a hint of sadness. “Every day I woke up going maybe this is the day that we will do big business, maybe this is the day that they will come in and shop. And it just never really happened.”
It is all the more crushing to Koch since prior generations had faced challenges of their own – and survived. Multiple world wars. The Depression. “My father was born on October 31, 1929,” he notes. “Two days after the market crashed.”
“They made it work in good times and bad,” he adds.
Koch’s grandmother was the reason he got into the business. He headed to Los Angeles after graduating from college, to try his hand at becoming a professional actor. Despite his family’s ties to the lingerie business, Koch had absolutely no interest. “It was nice to visit but I never saw myself doing this as a living,” he explains. He intended to visit LA for a couple of months. But when he started landing television commercial appearances – everything from Irish Spring soap to Midas Mufflers, Preparation H and Cherry Coke – he stayed on. A visit from his opinionated Grandma ten years later, in 1990, presumably to watch him do stand up – compelled him to begin to change his mind. “The deal I made with my family was I will come into the business to try it but I am not giving up my career and they sort of snickered like ‘my career, blah, blah, blah’.”
Standing on the floor of the Town Shop today, among a wide array of classic and contemporary undergarments, sleepwear and loungewear, Koch still shakes his head in wonder about his grandmother’s choice. “For some reason, she anointed me to run the business (Koch has siblings and many cousins.) I never understood why.”
Grandma Selma was the force behind the shop’s location on upper Broadway, too. The original location, on fashionable 57th Street, was too far away from her children’s’ school on the Upper West Side. Her husband knew better than to quibble, so they moved, just down the street – and more notably, across the street from their current site. Koch says proudly that many of the design features of today’s store came from the 57th Street location.
He points to the back room with swimsuits and the checkout desk, in particular, and with the same sweep of his arm, introduces his wife, Nicole, who is behind the counter. The shop is a true family business, a feeling shared by most of the staff who have been with Koch for years if not decades. Bra-fitting is, after all, not an easy skill to pick up. “Easy to do but only once you know how,” Koch says. One saleswoman learned the trade from Grandma Selma herself and has been a go-to for customers for over 40 years.
Koch explains that when the pandemic hit in March, he was quick to close, even before most department stores. He didn’t want to put his staff at risk or his immediate family. “It was becoming obvious, despite the guy in the White House,” he says with a frustrated snort, “that this was not the flu and it was a bigger problem that you didn’t want to get.”
He turned off the lights and told vendors not to ship. Staff were sent home although, in a testament to loyalty, Koch decided to pay them fully, regardless of the closure. The last day of operations, a woman from NBC happened to be shopping and asked Koch to comment on his feelings about the virus. “It was really hard to talk about closing a business that had never really been closed before,” he says, his voice still faltering.
Despite the lack of income, Koch remained shuttered for almost four months, until he had reasonable confidence that he could reopen with adequate safety features for customers and staff in place. He still winces at the loss of revenue during those key months – his “season” he calls it – when women typically stock up on items for spring break (swimsuits), weddings (lingerie), and outdoor activity (leisure wear). “Those were our three most important months of the season – gone.”
As Koch continues to talk it’s clear that at least a core of the regular customers still come in for products and fittings and the exceptional customer service on which the Town Shop made its worldwide reputation. A caregiver with her older client explains quietly to one salesperson that the woman has put on some weight during the pandemic so her bra is now too small. Another is greeted by name as she is led by a several staff members to the bra boutique at the back.
Koch describes this time as “a totally new experience. It’s very frustrating. It’s taken the wind out of our sails. At the same time, I have a staff that is healthy, I have a family that is healthy, and I have customers that are still coming in, even if there are fewer of them…It’s definitely very, very scary and somewhat demoralizing.”
As if to buoy himself he goes on. “I can’t fight it. I can’t change it. We are going to keep our eye on the prize, though, which is serving our customers and doing the best that we can do on a daily basis. Make sure that people walk out with what they came for and hopefully, a little bit more.”
Standing in front of a wall of pictures of generations of Koch proprietors, as he talks, Koch nods up to Grandma Selma’s photo and adds, “I know she knows what is going on.”