For 108 years, Zimman’s has been focused on pleasing patrons with quality merchandise at fair prices.
Sales is clearly in the Zimman family DNA. As Morris Zimman liked to tell it, he started out selling grain futures at nine or 10 (or maybe six) years old in his native Lithuania. Less than a year after arriving in America, he put his sales acumen to use, opening a dry goods store in Lynn in 1909.
Daniel Zimman, the fourth generation to work in the store, is clearly in awe of his great-grandfather’s accomplishments, and those of his father and grandfather as well, who together have kept Zimman’s rolling and relevant through war, economic calamity, and a shifting retail landscape.
“Every generation has reinvented the store—my father did it twice,” by narrowing the store’s focus to fabrics, then adding furniture and accessories, says Daniel. But it all started with Morris, who spoke nine languages—a useful skill in Lynn at the turn of the 20th century, when laborers were streaming into the city to work in factories.
“He could speak with all the immigrants and find out what they needed,” and as a result sold everything from pickled herring to lawn furniture, Daniel says. And always fabric—over the decades, Zimman’s has evolved to specialize in textiles and high-quality custom drapes and reupholstery, and now is one of the most highly regarded stores of its kind in the country. Hollywood set decorators working on everything from the Ghostbusters reboot to Black Mass as well as designers from around the world make the pilgrimage to Lynn to shop the upwards of 50,000 bolts, ranging from the most precious items spotted at high-priced design centers to simple cotton prints.
“We have the newest, most stylish fabrics, but we can get it for you at a really good price,” Daniel says. “All shoppers, whether you are a billionaire or living paycheck to paycheck, want a good deal.”
What’s surprising is that the company is able to offer an elite level of customer service for everyone who walks in the door, alongside those low prices—often less than half what the big design centers charge for the same fabric. That old-school attention to service has been another policy since the beginning, as evidenced by some vinyl recordings of Morris Zimman speaking on local radio station WLYN that Daniel unearthed recently. “When you treat people right, they come back,” Morris told the radio announcer. “And that’s our policy: Giving them good buys and treating them right.”
The recordings, available on the store’s website, are a particular treasure in a store filled with family memories. “I’d never heard my great-grandfather’s voice,” Daniel says, adding that it was the legacy of generations that drew him into the family business 18 months ago. “It made me feel sad to think that the store might end with my father.”
Daniel recalls epic games of hide-and-go-seek when he was a child and hopes for the same for his two-year-old daughter. “The store is massive to me even now,” he says. “But I can still imagine how big it must seem to her.”
Whereas Michael Zimman, Daniel’s father, adapted to the changing retail landscape in the 1990s with the narrow focus on fabrics and home furnishings, as the fourth generation, Daniel is currently contributing a fresh eye toward sales and merchandising. A new tongue-in-cheek ad campaign features Michael Zimman posing at an array of other full-service multigenerational businesses in Lynn, from car mechanics to hairdressers, to convey the idea that Zimman’s is about service first and foremost. All of the store’s custom work, from upholstery to drapes, is still done in-house, which cuts turnaround time roughly in half and ensures a top-quality product.
“I understand sales—it’s everything else my father knows that I have to learn,” Daniel says, adding modestly that his successful career in the entertainment industry, working with artists such as The Pretenders and Damon Wayans prior to joining the family business, was another form of sales.
One thing that makes Zimman's special is their unbelievable staff. Daniel says, "our employees are like family." Daniel's first project upon joining the company was to help general manager Patty Forster put the finishing touches on the newly revamped second-floor furniture showroom. Patty, a 15-year veteran of Zimman's, conceived and executed the entire second floor revamp--gone is the bazaar-like jumble of furniture and accent pieces packed into a space where shoppers might have to turn sideways or nearly scramble over a coffee table to cross the room. Now the room is airier, with a fresh coat of paint with a changing array of sofas, club chairs, and striking lighting, all done in neutrals to create a calm palette on which customers can impose their own visions.
“There was a disconnect between the first floor and the other floors,” says Daniel, who notes that some people may not realize Zimman’s 40,000 square feet, or nearly an acre of shopping, carries two floors of furniture above the fabric section. “I try to bring people upstairs who aren’t even shopping for furniture,” he says, because if they are shopping for fabric, laying it across a sofa or chair upstairs can help them envision the effect.
However, if customers are shopping for furniture, they can have the gratification of getting something right away, thanks to the vast array of items in stock. “Our inventory is unbelievable,” Daniel says. “You want that bookcase, you can leave with it.”
Daniel hopes that adhering to the values of the previous generations will keep him employed for the next 50 years or so—or at least until his daughter may be interested in joining the family business. But he’s not resting on his family’s laurels. “You always have to change,” he says. “I still have to figure out what’s next. It’s been 108 years and it’s up to me to keep it going.”
BY JEANNE O’BRIEN COFFEY For Northshore Home
PHOTOS BY JOE FERRARO