Open the door to Becker’s Bridal, and you are overwhelmed by a sea of fluffy white wedding dresses. Hanging cloud-like from racks on three levels, the 2,500 dresses suggest a dream world full of divinity fudge.
All those dresses can be a bit unsettling — “a white blindness nightmare” is what Alyssa Becker, the daughter’s owner, sometimes calls it — but “dream” is an apt description, since the dreams of tens of thousands of brides have started right here in this unimposing store in downtown Fowler.
Since 1934, more than 100,000 brides-to-be have found their way to this country town 25 miles northwest of Lansing in search of the perfect dress. Like her mother, Sharon, before her and her grandmother, Eva, before that, current dream maker Shelley Becker Mueller doesn’t just see dresses. She sees a life unfolding.
“Every dress has a story,” she said.
Becker’s Bridal and eight of its customers, including Becker Mueller, have their stories told in “The Magic Room: A Story About the Love We Wish for Our Daughters,” by Jeffrey Zaslow, Wall Street Journal columnist and best-selling author.
Zaslow, who was once the replacement for advice columnist Ann Landers, has perfected the art of telling other people’s stories, most recently with “Gabby,” the story of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Before that, he catapulted onto the best-sellers lists with “The Last Lecture,” about the final days of Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch, and “The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women and a Forty-Year Friendship.”
Zaslow and his wife, Detroit TV newsanchor Sherry Margolis, have three daughters of their own. When the author was looking for a topic that spoke to love, he was considering a maternity ward for a backdrop, until his spouse suggested a bridal shop. While researching online, he came across an unusual mid-Michigan bridal shop, once a general store, nestled on the proverbial Main Street in a village of 1,100. He knew immediately he wanted to write about it.
It almost didn’t happen. Initially, Becker Mueller said she thought he was trying to sell her something, and only after seven phone calls did she call him back.
Zaslow was sold on the story after making his first trip to Becker’s, exactly 100 miles from his southeast Detroit home. He would make more than a dozen more trips to immerse himself in the stories of eight brides-to-be. At five of the weddings, he became a guest and an observer.
He watched firsthand the complex and emotional process of selecting a dress. Becker Mueller says brides-to-be typically look at 50 to 60 dresses and try on 20 before making a selection. Some get lucky and hit a home run with the first dress they try on. Then, when wearing it in the “Magic Room,” a converted bank vault — during the Depression, Becker’s bought a building that once housed a failed bank — with multiple mirrors to provide a dramatic final look, the bride-to-be often takes her place on the marble platform, checks her dress out in the “infinity mirrors” and cries out, “Perfect!”
Becker Mueller says a lot has changed in the industry since she began working in the store 32 years ago, when she was 14.
As a small child she remembers seeing the stocked shelves in the original store that looked like something you’d see on “Little House on the Prairie.” In the book, Becker Mueller talks about some of the tender moments she shared with her grandmother and the business acumen she learned from her mother and her father, Clark.
She said when she began working, Clark still sold some menswear and work boots, but after Becker Mueller took over the operation, “anything that wasn’t white was gone.”
Since 1934, the store had slowly transitioned from a general store — with the requisite pickle barrels and crackers — to apparel. In 1991, all street wear was moved across the street to an annex, the site of the original Becker’s General Store. That site now sells prom, bridesmaid and mother of the bride dresses.
Becker Mueller said she always harbored thoughts of owning Becker’s Bridal. “There was something in me that said, ‘Someday.’ I thought it was always a known for me.”
She said years ago young women would come into the store with a photo torn out of a bride’s magazine, while today’s brides have the image of their “perfect dress” on a cell phone or a page they may have printed off the Internet. “It’s a sign of the times,” Becker Mueller said. “Hardly ever see a bride’s magazine.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is that every wedding dress is a shade of white ivory, in tones of white or ecru.
During the selection process, brides-to-be often send photos and texts to their friends, asking what they think. “It’s a much more complex process than it used to be with the bride’s family and bridesmaids involved in the selection,” Becker Mueller said.
Becker Mueller also said it has gotten harder to close the sale.
“Brides used to come to buy,” she said. Now, brides-to-be shop at several stores, or may leave to buy what they like on the Internet.
Becker Mueller says most of her customers show up at Becker’s because of its reputation.
“We’re still getting a lot of ‘my mom bought her dress here.’ Their mom bought a dress, or grandmother and a lot of ‘my sisters,’ ‘my friend’ or cousin — that type of direct generational referral. Not a large percentage comes from the Internet, compared to word-of-mouth.”
Although the majority of dresses are sold to brides from the Fowler, Westphalia and west Michigan areas, Becker Mueller said brides also make the trek from southeast Michigan and Chicago. A typical traveling distance is an hour and a half.
“We get a lot from the west side of the state, and Chicago is big,” she said. “As they drive through the flat country they think they are lost. We’ll get calls and we tell them, ‘Keep driving.’”
Zaslow’s book may just be the ultimate in word-of-mouth for Becker’s Bridal. In it, he closely follows eight brides-to-be, each with her own distinct demographic, lifestyle and personal challenges. Erika, Danielle, Meredith, Megan, Julie, Ashley, Shelley and Jennifer each found their way to Becker’s during the search for the perfect dress. Each woman has her own story: growing up in a tight-knit family; a bride-to-be raised by her grandmother; second marriages; older brides; brides overcoming amazing obstacles, etc. But they are all connected by “the dress” and the transformative power of the Magic Room.
The author also cleverly weaves in the changing cultural mores, the shifting relationships between mothers and daughters, and how the wedding and the institution of marriage have changed over the last seven decades.
“Every day, Shelley observes this changing dance between mothers and daughters,” Zaslow writes. “She sees moms who can’t let go of their own youth. ‘People think we’re sisters,’ a daughter will say, but Shelley can tell if the young bride is happy about it. It can feel creepy.”
Zaslow had a lot of choices of future brides to write about: Each Saturday about 55 wedding parties visit the store. He looked at 100 brides-to-be in winnowing down his selections of whom to profile.
“I didn’t work too hard to find these brides,” he said in a phone interview, “and Shelley was very open to telling her story. I’ve done five books in four years, and this was the easiest.”
The author was able to get all the featured brides to talk openly about who they are and whom they expect to become, as well as talking about their fears as well as their excitement.
One bride has yet to have her first kiss (by choice), another has a young child, another is a widower and yet another has found love late in life. One bride’s wedding plans are almost derailed by an auto accident. Becker Mueller’s own marriage ends in divorce.
Where the author has really excelled is in the telling of the story of Becker’s and, in particular, Shelley’s reign. As in most family-owned businesses there were moments of duress, especially as Becker Mueller began to exert her influence, asking that she be allowed to take over the operation. Becker Mueller may face this difficult transition herself as her 25 year-old daughter Alyssa has begun working full-time in the store.
In the book, Alyssa Becker describes herself as a hopeless romantic — but she has also come to grips with the statistical fact that 50 percent of brides to whom Becker Mueller sells dresses will probably end up divorced.
Becker Mueller knows that someday she will turn over her operation to the next generation, but she seems to be comfortable with that change.
“Each of us have taken it to a new level and have responded to changing times,” she said.
Dresses may be made in China today, but one thing that hasn’t changed is they are still hand-ironed in Becker’s back room before being turned over to the bride.
Zaslow said the stories in the book were especially moving to him since he has three daughters. When they are ready to buy a dress, the odds are pretty good he’ll drive them to Becker’s.
Shopping for the dress is almost as important as the wedding ceremony, Becker Mueller said, stressing the word “almost.”
One vanquished custom of the past: a bride wearing her mother’s wedding dress. “It just doesn’t happen,” Becker Mueller said.
She says every bride wants her own dress. More practically, Becker Mueller points out, today’s brides are generally bigger, with waists that are maybe eight inches wider than their mothers. Becker Mueller also said that, contrary to popular belief, celebrity weddings only influence the selection to a minor degree.
“Brides like to look at similar dresses, but ultimately they want it to be their own,” she said. “Who wants to exactly copy Kate Middleton’s dress?” (Much less the gorgeous gown worn by disturbed bride Kirsten Dunst in “Melancholia.”)
Becker Mueller said in the last 10 to 12 years the most enduring trend for dresses has been strapless. “It’s had the longest run of any style,” she said.
Zaslow has said in media interviews that he doesn’t care for the strapless look: That’s why dads don’t get to make decisions.
Generational differences are important in the wedding industry. Zaslow cites the statistic that 16 percent of all weddings are now what are called “destination weddings,” held outdoors in lieu of traditional church ceremonies. So Becker’s carries a line of wedding dresses that were specifically made to wear on the beach. They are sleeker, lighter and more accommodating to the sandals look.
It seems fewer dresses will end up sealed in plastic or stored in attics. Statistics show that as many as 30 percent of brides might partake in a “trash the dress” ceremony, which could involve a photo session of the bride swimming in the surf or running through the woods in her dress. A growing number of brides sell their wedding dresses on the used market.
Becker Mueller said much of what is driving the new culture of bridal dress hysteria is reality-television programs like “Bridezilla” and “Say Yes to the Dress.”
“Now, when brides find ‘the dress,’ we hear (their bridal party) saying, ‘Are you saying yes to the dress?,’” she said.
Not every story that begins at Becker’s has a happy ending, however. Some of those who buy dresses never make it to the altar and never come back for the gowns.
They are “buried in a cemetery,” Becker Mueller says, in the basement of the annex store across the street, until they are donated to theater groups. Becker Mueller knows she could sell the dresses on the secondary market, but says she would never do that.
“It would be a bad vibe,” she said
Jeffrey Zaslow and Shelley Becker Mueller
2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 14
Schuler Books & Music
1982 Grand River Ave.