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Approaching 100th birthday, store known for compassion gets new home in Highland Park

After nearly 100 years on the North Shore, Schwartz’s Intimate Apparel has moved to a new location in Highland Park, aiming to bring a brighter and more open space to its customers.

Since owner Ben Schwartz’s grandmother opened the store in 1916, it has always been a family business, he said.

“People come in and say their mother shopped here, their grandmother, and there’s a pride in that,” Schwartz said.

With the whole family growing up around the store, which moved from its longtime home in Wilmette, Schwartz said he and his siblings were always sweeping the floors, cleaning the store and learning about the family business from a young age.

“I’ve been in the store basically since I could stand on my own two feet,” said Syndi Salat, Schwartz’s sister. “It was the idea that if you wanted to eat, you worked.”

Ben and Syndi’s mother Florence met her husband Milton in the 1940s while she worked at Schwartz’s and has been at the company ever since.

“The mission from day one was to give old-fashioned service and treat others as you would like to be treated,” Florence said. “It’s a family affair.”

Nearly a third of the company is dedicated to medical products, such as pressure garments and bra fittings for women after breast cancer or other surgery, said Salat, who is also the medical products manager for the division called Positive Care.

Positive Care is a personalized service that works with referrals from local doctors, therapists and wound centers all over the Chicago area, Salat said.

“I love working with my clients,” Salat said. “These women are so strong and going through so much. We keep in mind the kind of service I would want as a woman and as a mother.”

Salat added that she likes to call her customers clients rather than patients, as they have most likely been seeing many medical professionals, and she hopes to help get them back into their daily routines.

Helping women with medical needs has been a part of the business for several generations. Salat said that when her grandmother started the business, she was doing alterations for women who’d had mastectomies when the products did not exist and the topic was often taboo.

“It’s the evolution of a business,” Salat said.

Without the advertising that comes with other large-scale retail chains, Florence said customers mainly come to Schwartz’s by word-of-mouth, with several generations of women recommending their service to friends and family.

“We don’t sell the size; we sell the fit,” Florence said. “We bend over backwards for our customers.”

Ben’s wife, Shellie, runs the swimwear division and said she likes the satisfaction that comes with helping her customers find the right fit.

“Most women equate swimsuit shopping to going to the dentist,” Shellie said. “It’s like wearing your underwear in public.”

With swimming suits ranging from size A to GG that can all be altered, she said they look to customize the experience and the product for each customer.

Even though some customers may not like it, Shellie said she is always honest about how a suit looks.

Though Ben has been the store’s owner for nearly 35 years, he said he likes to mainly work behind the scenes and is confident in his mother, wife, sister and other employees to work with customers.

Ben added that Schwartz’s welcomes customers of all ages, and that it’s important to have compassion whether someone is a preteen buying their first bra, shopping for the first time following cancer surgery or an older woman looking for patient service.

The new location also brings larger fitting rooms to accommodate Positive Care and give clients the privacy they need without feeling like a clinical environment, Ben said.

As Schwartz’s continues to grow into its new location, Ben said he hopes the company continues to honor its legacy and what customers want.

To celebrate the nearly century-old traditions, Ben said the new store will have an archival wall with old pictures, advertisements and store decorations dating back to the early 1900s.

“We want to bring in the fifth generation as well,” he said. “We may not have the biggest inventory or the most stories, but we will give the customers what they want.”

Schwartz’s does hope to move to Highland Park — it also previously operated in Skokie — doesn’t cause further confusion with the Betty Schwartz’s Intimate Boutique chain, which has a store in Highland Park, along with Buffalo Grove and Deerfield.

That chain spun off from Schwartz’s Intimate Apparel, and though representatives from both companies said the two have been completely separate entities for many years, the split was not without conflict. A legal battle ensued over the use of the Schwartz name, though it was settled at least a decade ago, said Dominic Zanfardino, an intellectual property lawyer who was on the case.

Betty Schwartz’s Intimate Boutique manager Bruce Goldfarb said employees have had to deal with some confused customers because there are now two stores with similar names in Highland Park. He said he has no contact with the other store.

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