Some give their lives to their businesses. Shelly Manougian's business saved hers.
A year after opening Bella Intimates, Manougian hosted an open house for doctors from area hospitals to check out her mastectomy products and discuss patient needs. On a whim, she mentioned having a sharp pain in her lower back, and an oncologist urged her to check it out.
Within a week, she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She'd had it for 10 years.
"It was a twist of fate," Manougian said. "A lot of people my age don't have colon cancer, and all the talk is breast cancer, breast cancer, breast cancer. When people are talking to me, their eyes still go to my chest."
Another twist of fate: Anne Doyle, the retired boss of the first intimates store Manougian ever worked in, Annie's Silks, Satins and Scents, was the one to come to her rescue when she got sick. Doyle, 76, ran Bella Intimates while Manougian was out, and still helps out sometimes.
Yet another: Her brother, who was originally going to attend the open house that evening, couldn't make it. Three days later, he went to the hospital for a routine colonoscopy and was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
While cancer has played a pivotal role in her life, Manougian says she doesn't focus her business just on mastectomy. Her goal is still the large one she started her business with: making women of all conditions feel beautiful and confident.
"What I'm learning, and not because I'm sick, but the philosophy is all about empowering women, regardless of if they're someone who's had cancer, or just needs a proper bra," she said. "It's about making the person feel whole and feel good about themselves."
Manougian's 1,500 square-foot store is perfect for just that. The outside is a single-story, mall-like building, like any other in Rye, N.H. But the inside is like a walk through the Italian countryside, with smooth ivory columns, burgundy walls, chandeliers and elaborate tapestries. No clutter, but space, breath, made possible by large open windows, light hardwood floors and smart product display. For mastectomy patients, there's a relaxing private room off to the side of the entrance.
The offerings: lingerie, sleepwear and loungewear from all the majors, from the classic Chantelle and Simone Perele to the hip Spanx and Hanky Panky. Sizes range from 30A to 48H, and Manougian knows most women are wearing the wrong one. But no fret - she and her three co-workers have 26 years of fitting experience among them, and they make fitting an art, not an exercise.
"We don't 'measure,'" she said. "You will not find a tape measure in the store. With every bra manufacturer varying in fit, it makes more sense to fit the client to the bra and not get caught up in the size of it."
Twice a year, Bella Intimates hosts "The Perfect Fit" event, where customers get a discount on their perfect-fitting bra. This, plus fashion shows, print and radio ads, community events and, most golden, a shout-out on Oprah from master fitter Susan Nethero of Intimacy stores, has pushed business to a high. The average customer spends $30 on a panty and $80 on a bra and shops once or twice a month.
Demand has grown so much that Manougian has recently opened a satellite store. It's just five miles away (on Deer Street) and much smaller, but she says it's in a bigger shopping district and helps her "tap into the customer that doesn't make it down the street."
Another twist of fate: Just a few doors down from her satellite shop is Intime, the first intimates store Manougian ever managed.
Twist, twist, twist, twist, success - and a mission.
"I believe that women have the power to do anything," she said. "It is all about inspiring women to be comfortable and confident, and therefore to feel sexy as well."