Jeffrey Zaslow was looking for his next nonfiction narrative when he came across Becker’s Bridal, a family-owned boutique in a small town outside Detroit “where there were more dresses than people,” he says of the setting of his latest, The Magic Room.
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The store is also where generations of Becker women—and more than 100,000 brides from all over the Midwest—have come to buy their wedding dresses since 1934. Zaslow fell under the spell of the “Magic Room,” a softly lit space with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, where a bride-to-be can step onto a pedestal and watch herself—and her mother’s face—transform as she tries on her wedding dress for the first time. It was this mother-daughter moment that inspired Zaslow, a father himself, to spend a year following the lives of the Becker family and the women who traveled to the shop.
What makes a bridal shop a good setting for a story about parents and children?
[Getting married] is a key moment in a young women’s life. It’s arguably “the” moment, short of having a child. When you look at the bridal magazines, it’s all about the veil and the caterer and the honeymoon, but what’s really going on in people’s heads is much more visceral and much scarier than that in a way.
Everybody is thinking forward, and they’re thinking backward. They’re thinking about who they are and who they want to be. Parents think about the dreams they have for their children. It’s a good moment to say to people, “What’s on your mind?” and to ask them about their lives.
How did you convince Shelley Becker, the shop’s owner, to let you write a book about her family?
I called her six or seven times, and she never returned my phone calls. I guess it’s kind of crazy—a guy walks into your life and says, “I want to write the story of your family going back to 1934. I want to hang out in the bridal shop for a year. Will you let me?”
She’s a special woman, Shelley, and I think she saw that there was a potential for beauty in it. I think it was scary for her because I was going to write about her divorce and issues in her family and who-knows-what. I really wanted to honor her story as much as I could and the story of her family.
Not many men get to see the inside of a bridal shop. What was it like?
That’s true. I spent a lot of days where I was the only man around. I have three daughters—that’s what made me want to write the book—so I was sort of used to being around women. It’s a very emotional time for women when they’re buying the dress and for their mothers. I saw a lot of tears, and I saw a lot of uptightness, and I saw a lot of love.
What did you learn about the wedding industry?
I learned the tricks of the trade. It’s all about selling for sure. They’re trying to sell dresses, but Becker’s is more about getting to know the person. It’s about selling, but it’s about matters of the heart, too…I think that’s the secret to their success. They’re not overbearing in their sales ploys.
I did learn about all the ways in which you can coerce the bride into a more expensive dress. If you show them the cheap dress, they’ll want it, so you start by showing them the expensive dresses. It’s hard for the mom-and-pop bridal shops because people will go in there and try on a dress and then go on the Internet and buy it for $50 cheaper.
That happens all the time to Becker’s. That’s retail. Usually, it doesn’t matter, but it’s so labor-intensive to help a bride try on a dress—sometimes it goes on for days—and for them to then go and buy it online, that’s not really fair.
What do you remember about your wedding?
My wedding was on the fourth of July in 1987. My mother-in-law wasn’t so eager to have fireworks, and my wife was a little uptight. We’ve had a great marriage, but the wedding was not so easy. When we left the synagogue my mother-in-law was sitting in the limo waiting for us. So it was the three of us in the limo right after we got married. I’ve been kidding her about that for 25 years.