Mona Lisa Jackson locked Coeur's spotless glass door for the last time in February. But it wasn't until Tuesday, when I saw that a West Coast Optical now called the 800-square-foot space at 17th and Sansom Streets home, that my heart really broke.
My dismay wasn't that I don't have a place to buy bras. Haverford-based specialty boutique Hope Chest is around the corner on Chestnut Street. Victoria's Secret remains a top shopping destination at the Shops at Liberty Place. These days, H&M offers affordable bra-and-panty sets, too.
No, what saddens me about Coeur's abrupt closing is that Philadelphia's once close-knit retail scene has lost yet another heartbeat.
"You know, I still walk by my store," Jackson — who would have celebrated Coeur's 20th anniversary this month if she had remained open — said last week.
"One day I went over and I saw they'd painted the walls and pulled my desk out," Jackson said, holding back tears. "It hurts. I lived, breathed, and ate Coeur."
Jackson and I sat outside Chick's, Gina and Philip Narducci's South Philadelphia gastropub, where Jackson goes most weekday mornings to help out, to take her mind off Coeur, and to figure out her next move.
Nine months after the Valentine's Day closeout sale to end all Valentine's Day closeout sales, Jackson is just able to talk about the end of Coeur. Online shopping coupled with the rise of Rittenhouse Square rents — the same factors that forced the signature women's wear store Joan Shepp to move to Chestnut Street and Knit Wit to close its Center City location — were behind Coeur's demise.
"My heart dropped the day I pulled down the gate for the last time, but when I saw someone had taken over –" Jackson's voice trailed off.
The heart of the fashion community
I met the central players of Philadelphia's fashion scene at Coeur. We spent afternoons chatting up happenings on the Square, politics, and race relations. And, of course, there was the random fashion banter. Hot topics: Women had the right to bare arms and ditch pantyhose.
It was Jackson who put me — and the rest of Center City — on to the trendy Spanx, Hanky Panky, and Commando brands of undies. Sit in Coeur long enough and a local celebrity like TownHome owner Dana Bank, film office executive director Sharon Pinkenson, socialite Brooke Dillon, or Philadelphia Tribune royalty Mariska Bogle (or their husbands) would wander in. Occasionally, a big star like actress Cameron Diaz or British pop singer Ellie Goulding would show up. In the background, Jackson's giant Persian cat, Ferrari, slinked in and out of sunbeams.
"We sent people over there all of the time," recalled Tuesday Gordon, manager of Joan Shepp and a friend of Jackson's for more than 30 years. "She wanted people to feel as beautiful on the inside as they did outside."
"Not to mention," Gordon added, "she was also one of a few African Americans running a business on the Square. I felt that connection to her. I was proud of her."
In the winter, we nosed out the window in fold-up chairs, waving to passersby through one of Jackson's tricked-out displays. But in the summer, the party moved to the stoop. And those who kept the city's toniest community ticking — we're talking everyone from UPS drivers to the ladies who didn't flinch at paying $200 for a bra — stopped in for a laugh, or a bra fitting.
And those fittings were legendary. Jackson would greet you. Ask you your bra size. Give them to you (as well as ones she knew would fit you better) and stand outside the fitting room while you tried those bras on. She demanded you walked out. Then she gave you the once-over. If need be, she'd adjust bra straps and move breasts to achieve the perfect cleavage. Or, in my case, the illusion of cleavage.
"People were much happier walking out than when they walked in," said Geri Covington, a Coeur regular. "They would put their old bras in their bags and walk out with their heads held a little higher, backs a little straighter. … It was a special moment I saw happen over and over and over again."
But for all the special Valentine's Days and "Coeur" babies Jackson had a hand in creating, she could be a little icy, especially if you decided the hands-on approach wasn't for you. Or, worse, if you dripped a wet umbrella on the blue-tile floors she had just scrubbed clean.
She had her reasons. Even with her Coeur family, Jackson always considered herself alone in the world.
Jackson was adopted as baby by a family who lived in Sharon Hill, where she grew up. All she says about her childhood is that it wasn't a happy one.
Her parents died before she finished high school. Shortly after graduating in 1974, she got pregnant with her daughter, Shaneasha. She raised her as a single parent.
In the late 1970s, Jackson took a job as an entry-level manicurist at now-closed Ruth Triester in Bala Cynwyd.
"When I started out, those women would throw money at me to feed their meter," Jackson said, "But eventually I got so good my book stayed full."
Through the 1980s and early 1990s, Jackson worked as a manicurist, eventually moving to Center City, where she worked as an independent contractor at Siaani and the now-closed Maurice Tannenbaum. But she knew she didn't want to do nails forever.
Around 1995, Jackson found herself shopping for pretty bra-and-panty sets at Neiman Marcus and couldn't find anything she liked. The idea for Coeur, heart in French, was born.
After a buying trip to Paris (she really had no idea what she was looking for), a loan from a dear friend, and a little help securing a spot from restaurateur Georges Perrier — Jackson had worked at Brasserie Perrier for a stint — she opened Coeur in November 1997.
Coeur's first 10 years were good ones. Not only was she the exclusive carrier of brands like Chantelle, La Perla, and Zimmerli, she knew the ladies who would buy them from her days working as a manicurist. In 2005, Oprah Winfrey urged American women to buy perfect-sized bras, and business boomed for years. Underwear as outerwear trends dominated — as in, show off those bra straps. Interest in sex toys was growing. Jackson sold those in the back.
Around 2010, the first rumblings of trouble began. Social media was getting popular; online shopping, with its lax return policies, was becoming more prevalent. (Jackson had a strict no-return policy.) By the time Jackson realized she needed to pay attention to this online world, it was almost too late.
"I had a wonderful run," said Jackson, who says she's thinking of starting a personal shopping business for women who have trouble finding foundations. "But," she said, sighing, "All things must come to an end. It's time for me to start another part of my life."