The Magic Room
A Story About the Love We Wish for Our Daughters
The New York Times bestselling author of The Girls from Ames shares an intimate look at a small-town bridal shop, its multigenerational female owners, and the love between parents and daughters as they prepare for their wedding day.
Thousands of women have stepped inside Becker’s Bridal, in Fowler, Michigan, to try on their dream dresses in the Magic Room, a special space with soft lighting, a circular pedestal, and mirrors that carry a bride’s image into infinity. The women bring with them their most precious expectations about romance, love, fidelity, permanence, and tradition. Each bride who passes through has a story to tell—one that carried her there, to that dress, that room, that moment.
Illuminating the poignant aspects of a woman’s journey to the altar, The Magic Room tells the stories of memorable women on the brink of commitment. Run by the same family for four generations, Becker’s has witnessed transformations in how America views the institution of marriage: some of the shop’s clientele are becoming stepmothers, some are older brides, some are pregnant. Shop owner Shelley has a special affection for all the brides, hoping their journeys will be easier than hers. Jeffrey Zaslow weaves their true stories using a reporter’s research and a father’s heart.
The lessons Zaslow shares from within the Magic Room are at times joyful, at times heartbreaking, and always with insight on marriage, family, and the lessons that parents—especially mothers—pass on to their daughters about love. Weaving together secrets, memories, and family tales, The Magic Room explores the emotional lives of women in the twenty-first century.
One hundred miles northwest of my home, in a tiny, rural town with one stoplight, I found a place where 100,000 daughters, along with their mothers and fathers, have found themselves reflecting on the word “love.”
It’s a place where, every day, parents can’t help but be enveloped by a swell of emotion as they think back to the love they felt when their daughters were little girls. They think ahead, too, contemplating the love needed to carry their daughters onward from here. These parents know the disappointments and betrayals associated with the word “love,” especially these days. They know the losses that define life. Still, most make their pilgrimage here with a sense of hope and optimism.
For the daughters, usually women in their twenties, this is a place that makes clear they are at a crossroads. They have so much on their minds“love” being at the forefront, usuallybut they also can be distracted, impulsive, naïve, and fearful. Each of them has a story that brought them here. Not all will find happiness after they leave.
I never knew that all of this emotion was so well concentrated in one spot, a ninetyminute drive from my house in suburban Detroit. But once I started coming here, to watch and listen, I often found myself caught up in the swell of my own parental feelings, as the father of three daughters. For all of us who desperately wish that our girls will go through life safe, happy, and surrounded by love, time spent here offers visceral reminders of the challenges our girls face, of the ways in which sadness is so often intertwined with their joy, and of the sweet possibilities that await themor that may be beyond their grasp.
What is this place?
Put simply, it is a room . . . in a building . . . in this very small town.
The town is Fowler, Michigan, a middleclass community with 1,100 residentsand 2,500 wedding dresses.
The building is Becker’s Bridal, the largest business in town, and home to all those dressesa “blizzard of white” squeezed tightly on three floors of crowded racks.
And the room? That’s up a short flight of stairs and over to the left, on the second level of Becker’s. Each wall of the tenfootbyeightfoot space has a floortoceiling mirror designed to carry a bride’s image into infinity. They call it “The Magic Room,” and with good reason.
From the outside, the store looks like an old bank. That’s because the twostory, heavy stone structure was built a century ago to house People’s Bank, until the bank went under during the Depression. What was once the bank’s vaultcleared out of the few stacks of money that remainedis now the Magic Room, a place with soft lighting and a tiled, circular pedestal. This is where brides are taken when they finally decide which of the
2,500 dresses could be “the one.”
Becker’s sits at the south end of a tiredlooking twoblock Main Street. The family owned store, led in an unbroken chain of ownership by four generations of Becker women, has been a mainstay at this location since 1934. Over the years, the store has served more than 100,000 brides, many of whom traveled here from across the Midwest. It is a place rich in history, visited by young women who usually know none of it.
Thanks to Becker’s Bridal, the town of Fowler has more wedding dresses per capita than any other municipality in the United States, or perhaps in the world. But not many people outside of Michigan have heard of this place, or know anything about the women of Becker’sa daughter, her mother, her grandmother, and her greatgrandmotherwho built and nurtured the store, guiding all of those brides into all of their dresses for seventysix years.
As for the Magic Room, the saleswomen at Becker’s don’t use the word “magic” lightly when talking about it. They routinely watch brides and their mothers melt into tears in this room as they reflect on all the moments in their lives that led them here. After seeing their daughters on that pedestal, fathers are often overcome with emotion too. They excuse themselves, leaving the vault and then the store, so they can compose themselves. Fathers can be seen pacing up and down Main Street in Fowler, blowing their noses and wiping their eyes.
We live in an age when TV reality showsSay Yes to the Dress, Bridezillashave drawn attention by showcasing the frenzied pursuit of the wedding dress. These programs are framed like sporting events, with brides bickering and dickering and racing toward a finish line marked by their selection of a dress.
Some of this goes on at Becker’s, too, of course. But I came here not just to write about wedding gowns and what they represent. I also wanted to understand the women wearing them, their fears and yearnings.
"The Magic Room has all the makings of a cozy, nostalgic wedding read. Tulle, check. Satin and organza, check. Bridezillas, drama and tears? Yes, yes, yes….the highlight of the book is the comings and goings of bride after bride through Becker's, Zaslow also details the excitement and joy of getting married and the commitment and dedication it takes to stay married."
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Interesting, rewarding and heartbreaking”
—The Washington Post
“Shows the poignancy in everyday love stories.”
—The New York Times
“Forget bridezillas. A best-selling journalist visits a small-town wedding shop to uncover the poignant dreams of real women on the verge of commitment.”
—O, the Oprah Magazine
“A tenderhearted portrait of a bridal store in a small Michigan town... In a handful of their stories, Zaslow gently delineates the changing lives of women and finds—in among the mishaps, misunderstandings and tragedies that derail many relationships—ample evidence of the enduring power of marriage.”
“The book itself — to use the manliest possible term — is lovely. As lovely as a bride.”
“Anyone looking for happily-ever-afters will find plenty of them here.”
“Zaslow’s profile of the bridal shop, from the geopolitics of dressmaking to the effects of TV shows like Bridezillas, is almost as riveting as the bridal tales. The author plucks at the heartstrings as he relates all the yearnings of the brides-to-be and the travails they encounter on the way to the altar.”
“Tender and intimate.”
“Zaslow captures the joy, hope, love and magic.” (Top Pick)
“A compelling and sincere chronology of the experiences, tragedies, and love that led them to the shop. His narrative is sprinkled with fascinating statistical information … and insights into the lives and relationships of the four generations of Becker women who have worked at the store … A study of individual lives and dreams, this is recommended for casual readers and those with an interest in cultural and social customs concerning marriage, women’s roles, and parent-child relationships.”
How did you come up with the idea for the book THE MAGIC ROOM?
I wanted to write a nonfiction book about the love we all wish for our daughters. I needed a place to set the book a place with great emotion and I considered all sorts of possibilities. Maybe I could visit maternity wards, dance studios or daddydaughter date nights. Maybe I’d hang out at spas where mothers and daughters go to bond.
But then my wife suggested that I find a bridal shop. “There’s something about a wedding dress...” she told me. She was completely right.
I was willing to go anywhere in the country to find the right store and the right stories, but I began by looking closer to my home near Detroit. When I came upon the Web site for Becker’s Bridal, which is exactly 100 miles from my house, I was very intrigued.
So what did you do?
I got in my car, drove there, and fell in love.
I loved that Fowler, Michigan, is a town with more wedding dresses (2,500) than residents (1,100). I loved that the store has remained in the same family since it was founded in 1934, and that it inhabits an old bank building. Not many people outside of Michigan know about the women of Becker’sa daughter, her mother, her grandmother, and her greatgrandmotherwho built and nurtured the store, guiding 100,000 brides into dresses over seventysix years. It’s a beautiful story that hadn’t been told.
You have a knack for finding stories that seem to be about one thing but are really about the human experience. How did you know Becker’s Bridal was the right setting for a more sweeping look at parents and daughters today?
The minute I stepped into the Magic Room, I knew. The room is the old bank vault transformed into a mirrored space where brides go when they think they’ve found “the one.” Saleswomen at Becker’s don’t use the word “magic” lightly. They routinely watch brides and their mothers melt into tears when they enter the space. After seeing their daughters on the Magic Room pedestal, many fathers excuse themselves, and can be seen pacing up and down Main Street in Fowler, blowing their noses and wiping their eyes.
I was very moved by the heightened emotions I found at Becker’s, and by the people I met there who were willing to speak from the heart and to be reflective about their lives. Through their experiences, I thought I could try to tell a broader story about the bonds between parents and daughters in the twentyfirst century.
What did you learn about the bridal industry while working on this book?
I saw that it is a business, yes. But I also realized that those in the bridal industry are selling much more than dresses. They’re selling dreams, love, the future. I tried to capture all of that in the pages of the book.
I got to know Shelley, the owner of Becker’s, very well. She and her staffers resist the hard sell. Their clientele tends to be middleclass, and they don’t conspire to steer brides into more expensive dresses. Instead, they aim to be good listeners. Every bride has a story, and they tease out those stories from brides and their families. For the book, I focused on eight brides. I saw how their purchase of a dress was in some ways the culmination of their entire lives up to that moment. Pretty powerful stuff.
What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
Trying on all those dresses!
No, I’m kidding about that. The challenge was making sure I was honoring the stories of the families in the book, including the Becker family. They entrusted me with their secrets, and they revealed their fears and doubts. The things I asked them to talk about were not always easy.
All the books I’ve authored or coauthored including THE GIRLS FROM AMES, THE LAST LECTURE, and GABBY try to offer a window into people’s hearts. That was especially true for the women I found in The Magic Room. I was grateful that they were willing to open up to me, and I didn’t take lightly the responsibility of sharing their stories with the world.
What do weddings today say about our culture?
In 2011, we all know about the odds of divorce. Polls show that 39 percent of Americans today believe marriage is becoming “obsolete.” And yet, week after week, dozens of Becker’s brides take that walk down the aisle. For each of them, and for their parents, their wedding is a moment of hope. There’s an old saying, “Every time a marriage takes place, a new world is created.”
THE MAGIC ROOM is about the anticipation parents and daughters feel as they approach that new world.
You have three daughters. How did your time at Becker’s influence how you will someday help your daughters shop for their wedding gowns?
I’ll try to remember what Shelley and her staffers at Becker’s told me. A bride should make the final decision about which dress she feels she looks best in. What a parent thinks is secondary. If I ever get a chance to be the father of a bride, my job will be simple. My job will be to tell my daughters I love them.
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