Viola Goodman can guess a woman’s bra size with a quick glance.
Goodman’s cultivated her expertise over time, nearly 75 years’ worth, which is how long she’s been in the lingerie business, all of it on the Upper East Side.
A life in lingerie was not what Goodman had imagined for herself after she earned a master’s degree in history from Columbia University. But soon after graduating, Goodman’s husband, Max, a mechanic, was stricken with an infection in his knees and could no longer ply his trade.
“Somehow this store was empty,” Goodman recounted last week. “It was dry and clean, and my husband needed work.”
Viola and Max opened Viola’s Smart Shop in 1943. “Every woman needs a brassiere, so I decided it was a good product to sell,” she said.
The lingerie boutique, on First Avenue just north of 77th Street, is sandwiched between a children’s clothes shop and a vacant storefront.
Racks of nightgowns and robes dressed in plastic covers border the right side of the store, while sets of packaged underwear decorate the left. Behind the counter, an assortment of bras are tucked in individual boxes, each with a hand-written label noting its size and style. Goodman knows exactly where each item resides and who it will best fit.
“When I first came in here, I was asking for the wrong size. I’d been wearing this size for 20 years,” said Rochelle Pillar, an Upper East Side resident and Smart Shop regular. “Viola hooked me up with the correct size and it fit me so much better!”
For 74 years, Goodman, who preferred to let people guess her age, has personally serviced women such as Pillar, ensuring each leaves her shop with the best fit.
She prides herself on style and quality. It’s a selling point for many of her longtime and newer customers that Viola’s Smart Shop is no Victoria’s Secret. Experience and quality is what Goodman believes sets her boutique apart.
“Many women come in here, and the garment is so tight, they can’t breathe!” Goodman said, suggesting that big-name stores in her industry train young women to sell bras for commission. “I know they’re going to come to me because I give them what’s right.”
Goodman’s co-worker, Connie Norkin, shopped at Viola’s for many years before she started working there this spring.
After noticing a sign in the window on the way to her gym, Norkin, a graphic designer, stopped to talk to Viola about possibly helping her spruce up the displays in the windows.
Goodman had little interest in modernizing. Instead, she asked Norkin to help inside the shop as a salesperson.
“I’m Viola’s ladder,” Norkin said with a smile. “That was one of my selling points.”
Grateful for the part-time job, Norkin helps Goodman with just about anything from inventory to working on the windows to showing and fitting customers with a variety of nightgowns.
“I had always loved the fact that Viola had this store for a very long time and kept it going,” Norkin said. “That’s really a testament to Viola and her passion, commitment and energy to keep this store going in a neighborhood that is changing.”
And it has changed. Goodman recalls a time when all of her customers were Eastern European.
Rudy Giuliani is perhaps her most memorable client. Goodman recounts how Guliani, during his mayoral tenure, and an army of security personnel paraded into her narrow shop, in search of a few nightgowns for his elderly mother. Goodman, of course, knew the perfect style and fit, and insisted Giuliani buy three or four.
Max passed away about 10 years ago. But many customers continue to ask for him. “The old timers,” Goodman laughs.
With her children and grandchildren in all different states, Goodman works six days a week, reserving Sundays for cooking her favorite pot roast with fresh vegetables (“and no salt!”).
“I’m busy, and I’m happy,” Goodman said of her 48-hour workweek. “My work keeps me going.”