Yet, the story is far different at wholesale Corsets another longtime shop, Orchard Corset Center, at 157 Orchard Street. Peggy Bergstein, who owns the store, said that business was booming, in part because of a rare talent she claims to have. “I can walk down the street, and I can look at a person and tell you exactly what their bra size is,” she said. Ms. Bergstein and her husband, Ralph, have worked in the shop for 25 years. Before that, it was owned by Mr. Bergstein’s mother, Magda, who took over the 1930s corset shop in 1968.
The store has been at its current location for four years, but Mr. Markowitz has been a shopkeeper in the neighborhood for more than 35 years, selling everything from men’s sportswear to women’s underwear.
His former assistant and longtime friend, Roger Charrette, recalled the time he took a phone call from a Secret Service agent looking for a discontinued bra for a former first lady, Barbara Bush. “We were here when times were good,” said Mr. Charrette, who occasionally still stops in to help Mr. Markowitz. “Now it’s like Johnny on a pony,” he said comparing the shops to an old street game, “No one plays it no more.”
Indeed, there are about half a dozen underwear shops left in the area. Though pinpointing a precise number is impossible, some shopkeepers said there were 10 times that number years ago. Many shops sold wholesale to door-to-door salesmen and large manufacturers in addition to selling retail.
At its peak, the Lower East Side shopping district was bustling on Sundays with shoppers stopping at egg-cream stands and going to Katz’s Delicatessen for corned beef sandwiches. Shops were filled with clerks who could tell a customer’s size in one glance.