There's something about Salon Mary

A lingerie store on Emek Refaim, celebrating 50 years, has been staffed by four generations.

salon mary 2 (photo credit: Tamar LaFontaine)
salon mary 2
(photo credit: Tamar LaFontaine)
Ruth Ackerman-Dana is wearing a spaghetti-strap black dress framed by the straps of a red bra which match the tiny red flower at the bust and red trim at the hem. I am wearing a black tank top. On her chest, near the edge of her dress, Ackerman-Dana has a round, strawberry-colored cyst that looks like a birthmark. It is, in fact, a permanent reminder of her first biopsy. From the edge of my tank top, a white scar rises like the ragged blade of a dagger. The hospital staff who had administered the radiation therapy had been so busy chatting that they hadn't noticed the time. The scar is a burn mark forever seared into my chest. We eye each other's skin flaws in the knowing way that only women who have inherited the cancerous genes of their mothers instinctively do and we laugh - not self-consciously, but in mutual recognition. "You too?" we say simultaneously. Ackerman-Dana is actually much better at the recognition game than I am because it's part of her business. She is the proprietress of Salon Mary, one of the most veteran commercial enterprises along ever-trendier Rehov Emek Refaim. Her mother, Mary Ackerman, the founder of the lingerie store that next Tuesday celebrates its 50th anniversary, shared floor space with her father - Ackerman-Dana's grandfather - who ran an electrical goods shop. She had studied corsetry in Budapest immediately after leaving high school, because as a Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied Europe, she could not go to university. After the Holocaust the family came to Israel, and her father set up shop in 24 square meters of floor space of which he took two-thirds and gave her one third. Even though her section was not much bigger than a hole in the wall, Mary Ackerman built up a large and loyal clientele. The reason: manufacturers catered to average sizes. Any woman whose bust was larger than average, had to squeeze into a bra that was too small or have one custom-made. Likewise, teenagers buying their first bra also had trouble getting one to fit and their mothers or grandmothers often brought them to Mary Ackerman, who made a bra to measure if she didn't have the exact size in stock. In the late 1960s, when Mary's father died, she took over the whole store, which gave her and her customers more breathing space. When Mary's husband was assigned as a Jewish Agency emissary to Switzerland, he took his family abroad with him, and they spent seven years away from Israel. During that time, Mary's mother looked after the store. Ackerman-Dana spent much of her childhood watching her mother and studying her approach to customers. Occasionally she helped out, but had no intention of taking over. Her career ambitions were in a different direction altogether. A linguist and a tour guide by training, she moved with her husband to Arad where she was in charge of the city's Tourism Department. However in 1990, following the death of her father, she decided to return to Jerusalem, certain that she could use her language and guiding skills at international conferences. She landed some very good contracts but during the Gulf War her mother became ill with cancer and Ackerman-Dana found herself increasingly working in the store. When her mother died, Ackerman-Dana seriously considered selling the store. "I was an intellectual snob," she admits, explaining why she didn't want to be a shopkeeper. As a tour guide in five languages, she was in frequent demand, but could choose when she wanted to work. Running a store required coming to work every day at the same time. The idea that she had to open the shop at 9 every morning weighed heavily on her. "I felt as if I were in prison, with the difference that I held the keys." But there was a problem with her backing out of the business. Salon Mary was one of three stores in Jerusalem that fitted prostheses for women who had undergone mastectomies. Fearful that if she sold the shop, the buyer might not want to continue so vital a service, the Israel Cancer Association approached her and urged her to stay on. PERHAPS BECAUSE her own mother had died of cancer, or simply because she was sympathetic to the cause having fitted so many women who needed prostheses, Ackerman-Dana put her reservations aside and decided to continue what her mother had started. Her daughter Annaelle, who lives in Rehovot and is an environmentalist at heart, comes to work in the store, but is not being pressured to devote her life to it. Ackerman-Dana discovered that her linguistic talents didn't go to waste: She has customers from abroad, new immigrants as well as a sabra clientele. "It makes such a difference when a woman comes in and I detect her accent and speak to her in her own language." In addition, Ackerman-Dana, who loves to travel, goes abroad to see the major lingerie shows and to buy new merchandise. Unlike her mother, she does not provide custom-made bras. "I can't even sew on a button," she confesses. However she does know quality, and like so many women of Hungarian background has a strong sense of style. "Your outer clothes are worn to impress others," she says. "Your underwear is to impress yourself. If you're wearing underwear that feels good on your body, then you feel good." Although the store is known for its bras, and women who were fitted for their first bra by Mary Ackerman bring their daughters and granddaughters to be fitted by Ruth or Annaelle, it carries almost every category of lingerie. With the possible exception of a few Israeli brands, she stocks famous European and American brands and inasmuch as possible tries to ensure that they are not produced in China. Among her favorites is designer label Chantal Thomass. Some of the other brands include Fila, Lovable, Fantasie, Anita, Simone Perele, Chantelle and Parah. A local brand features silky smooth socks made out of bamboo. Although it's difficult these days to find garments that are not made with synthetic fabrics, much of what is available at Salon Mary is made from silk, satin, cotton and batiste. When it comes to the price, customers have learned not to bargain; Ackerman-Dana's years in Switzerland taught her that a fixed price is a fixed price. "You have to be fair and honest" is the rule that she lives by. Some of the customers who will join her on Tuesday at the 50th anniversary celebrations have asked her whether she will have a sale as part of the festivities, and have been surprised to hear that she won't. There will be wine and cheese and other goodies, but prices will remain fixed and there won't be any kowtowing to the current trend of "buy two and get one free." A browse through the stock explains the attitude. A line of simply gorgeous hand-painted robes looks unbelievably expensive. But the robes are priced at a reasonable NIS 300 each. Because lingerie has become an inspiration for outerwear, several of her customers purchase negligees to wear as evening coats to a formal affair, or nightgowns to wear as evening gowns. Ackerman-Dana reaches into a rack to bring out a stunningly chic yet simple nightgown in black mercerized cotton, which she wears as a dress. In recent years, the store has been completely redesigned to make maximum use of available space and to offer complete privacy to women trying on bras. There are two surprisingly spacious air-conditioned dressing rooms with large oval mirrors. The dressing rooms are divided by a blind which can be raised to make room for relatives and friends who are there for moral support. A carpeted staircase alongside the dressing room also provides comfortable seating, and there is room for wheelchair access. Although her customers may choose their own styles and colors, Ackerman-Dana will not sell a bra over the counter before the purchaser has tried it on. If this seems quirky, it's not. It's part of the professional service. "More than 80 percent of women wear bras that don't fit them," she says. IN MOST lingerie stores and certainly in the lingerie division of department stores, everything is color- rather than size-coordinated in the belief that customers know what color they want and will make a beeline for that rack. Not so at Salon Mary, where the shelves are lined with boxes labeled with sizes and brand names. Inside each box are assorted bras in different colors, styles and textures. Likewise with the panty rack, which is a rainbow mix of color. A customer will browse and will be asked by one of the four sales staff what particular style she prefers and will then be directed toward suitable items in the rack. Since taking over from her mother, Ackerman-Dana has become a store proprietor in her own right, and will soon be producing homewear items designed by Bezalel Academy of Art and Design graduate Gila Azran under the Salon Mary label. The store continues to cooperate with the Israel Cancer Association with cancer awareness promotions and lectures. It also encourages women who are about to undergo a mastectomy to come to the store before they check into the hospital to see what their options are. "There's absolutely no reason why they can't continue to wear sexy underwear," says Ackerman-Dana, adding that if they come to the store first, they go to the hospital in a much more optimistic mood.