A love affair with lingerie

Photograph of Beverly Weinkauf, proprietor of Toujours, by Susie Biehler

By Barbara Kate Repa

Owning her own lingerie shop was quite literally a dream for Beverly Weinkauf. “I actually had a dream about a candy store with large black and white diamonds on the floor,” she says, “and shelves of apothecary jars full of panties.”

Then, driving home from the airport one night, she saw a “for lease” sign at 2484 Sacramento. It had a hauntingly familiar black and white floor — and the former occupants had operated a vintage candy store. “That gave me the confidence to know that this was my time — and that was my space,” she says as she prepares to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Toujours, her elegant jewel box of a lingerie shop, on October 26.

“I’m ready to celebrate,” says Weinkauf.

But 25 years ago, she was teaching at an elementary school and working part time at a lingerie store in Marin County. “After two years in that store, I knew I could do it all — windows to merchandising,” she says. “Because I loved it all.”

Her parents, now deceased, were lukewarm about her business proposition at first. “They said: ‘We sent you to college to sell underwear?’ ” she recalls. But they came around when they realized how much she wanted to follow her dream, even putting up the $20,000 seed money, which was all it took to start a business back then. They had, perhaps unwittingly, nurtured what she calls her inner “compulsive intuitive shopper” from an early age. She recalls that when she was 16, her father insisted she go with him to Robertson’s department store in South Bend, Indiana, where they lived, to ask about getting a job. She was hired, and there and then began honing her appreciation of working with beautiful things.

She credits her mother, a seamstress, for instilling in her a sense of well-being, for paying attention to how she looked when leaving the house — and for buying her a bra-slip in high school. “So this business is in my DNA,” Weinkauf says.

She also says she was beckoned by the location near Fillmore Street and the energy of the city that fills the air as she crosses the bridge driving in from Marin.

“I consider Fillmore to be the best neighborhood,” she says. “It doesn’t go out of its way to get a ‘big this’ or a ‘tacky that’ — and its not crawling with bars.” She adds: “A large number of our customers are right here. We do their special orders. We watch them change over the years. They’re like family.”

The neighborhood has also changed over the years since she opened her shop. Weinkauf recalls nostalgically when Peet’s was Sugar’s Broiler, the greasy spoon rarely open for business at the corner of Fillmore and Sacramento. Across the street, the Coffee Bean & Tea was the Hillcrest, the casual eatery that felt like a living room. A few doors south, Mudpie was still Fillamento, the street’s gift emporium, which sold everything from quirky salt and pepper shakers to high-end bedsheets.

The economy felt more hopeful back then, too, but Weinkauf says the current quavery climate has taught her valuable lessons in buying more frugally from the 40 or so vendors who help keep the tiny shop stocked with bras, panties, bustiers, garter belts, gloves, slips, robes, stockings scarves, gloves, jewelry and scents.

And her customers have remained loyal, even though the city is now home to 11 lingerie shops, compared to five when she first opened.
Toujours’ customers range in age from 16 to 84 — mostly women, with some men shopping for the women in their lives. Their shopping styles tend to differ, with women taking 30 to 45 minutes to make a purchase, and men getting the deed done in 5 to 10 — some requesting plain brown bags to discreetly hide their goods.

Weinkauf says the shop’s cozy space and locale — a couple of doors up Sacramento, a bit removed from Fillmore Street’s bustle — is also a boon in that way. “Being around the corner is good for something as intimate as what I sell,” she says.

In fact, there’s something quaint and quiet about the way she does business — maintaining a Toujours website since 1997, for example, although shoppers can’t purchase online. “People can call and order, but we urge them to come in,” she says. “We prefer customers who have shopped in our store before. When we know what lines they prefer, we call or e-blast those who like them.”

The lines she carries tend to be classic, French and romantic: Lou, Huit, Chantelle, Lise Charmel. But she also makes room for others including Pluto from Belgium and local designer Lisa Lagevin of Nightlife, who makes handpainted silk kimonos.

“We cover basics as well as the more playful items,” she says. “We have serious bras with serious details in sizes ranging from 32A to 38G.”

The collection is carefully curated. “We spend a lot of time on the texture and feel of merchandise,” she says. “We try on everything and test drive it before we buy.”

Her co-pilot in test driving is often Brooke Welch, a longtime sales associate. “She can start a sentence and I can finish it,” says Weinkauf. “We have similar visions for Toujours and its merchandise.”

Welch seconds that emotion, adding that she’s learned a lot about the lingerie industry by working elbow to elbow with Weinkauf on and off for about a decade.

Toujours owner Beverly Weinkauf and her colleague Brooke Welch.

“Bev has an understanding of quality goods and has honed her eye for that,” Welch says. “She knows what women want and what doesn’t work for them.”

But Welch says the biggest lesson she’s learned has nothing to do with lace or lingerie. “One of the things I love most about Toujours is that while we have many loyal male customers, by and large, it’s a women’s shop,” she says. “On any given day, four or five women will stop by just to say hi, or show off a new haircut, or let us know they love their new robe. That ‘town market atmosphere’ is unique — a community stop where people feel comfortable sharing their lives. And Bev has cultivated that.”

Weinkauf is also a stickler for a good fit, urging women to take the steps that most skip: being measured and trying on different sizes in different brands. She confesses she recently had dinner with a few women friends and noticed that one seemed a little droopy. “I took her into the bathroom and adjusted her bra straps,” she says. “She came out of there with a whole new attitude — looking like she was in her 20s again.”

The tagline for Toujours is “Begin a Love Affair.” Weinkauf was inspired to coin it because it sounds “come hither” and romantic. “Lingerie invites people to linger. Its energy is not rushed,” she says.

And neither is hers anymore. “By the time you get to middle age, you know what makes you peaceful,” she says. “I walk in the store and it’s an atmosphere of warmth, joy and pure peacefulness.”

Toujours, at 2484 Sacramento, is kicking off its week-long 25th anniversary celebration week on October 15 with champagne and a breast-shaped “boob cake.”