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Michael Zimman hand selects all of his store

For more than a century, Zimman’s has given discerning decorators and in-the-know homeowners stylish options in textiles and home furnishings.

It’s an unusual location for a high-end design shop, situated next to a 99-cents store in downtown Lynn. But Zimman’s is an unusual store, with a strong sense of community, an old-world ambience, and a desire to cater to everyone from locals looking for high-quality bargains to clients with six-figure budgets looking to fill an entire home.

“It’s an unlikely spot for this type of business to evolve,” agrees owner Michael Zimman, grandson of the store’s founder, Morris Zimman. “But it works for us. You need a lot of space, which we have, and we’ve been doing it for 103 years, so we’ve developed a broad reputation.” With arguably the largest selection of textiles on the East Coast, if not in the country, and a carefully curated array of furniture and decorative items, Zimman’s has become a destination business, surviving the changing landscape of retail by smart specialization and unbeatable prices.

Stepping into Zimman’s can be a daunting proposition. With about 40,000 square feet-nearly an acre-of shopping spread over three floors, some customers, especially those seeking textiles, may not know where to start. After all, Zimman’s has at least 25,000 bolts of fabric in house-but who’s counting? “It might be 50,000. It might be 100,000. We don’t stop to count,” Michael Zimman says. “But that’s part of what makes us unique. We’re for people who want to step back into the way things were and have an experience of shopping in an emporium, putting their hands on textiles and furnitureÂ… It’s a throwback, and people really love it.”

Aside from the decor, another blast from the past is the store’s continuing focus on customer service. Zimman’s staff is trained to help every customer-from the local needing some new drapes to the chauffer-driven client outfitting a whole house-find exactly what he or she is looking for in the sea of fabrics. This one constant focus on customer service, no matter the budget, has helped the century-old store stay in business while evolving from a little-bit-of-everything department store to a textile and home furnishing specialist. If anything, as the overarching retail trend toward self-service continues, Zimman’s has gone the other way, encouraging employees to specialize in specific areas while emphasizing a high-touch experience.

“We try to provide more service than we ever have,” Zimman says. “We know that people are looking for quality services at reasonable prices. So, in recent years, we’ve gotten into providing more full service, where we make draperies, bedding, upholstery, pillows, slipcoversÂ…all that sort of thing. People don’t have to run around and get that done someplace else.”

Zimman’s dedication to the old ways has deep roots; Michael learned the business at his grandfather Morris Zimman’s knee. Morris opened the store in 1909, and Michael says he cannot remember a time when he wasn’t involved in the business. In fact, if he wanted to see his father, who worked from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. six days a week, he had to go to the store. While in the second grade, Michael would take the bus from the family’s home in Marblehead to swim at the Boys’ Club on Lynn Commons. After swimming, Zimman would wend his way through back alleys and residential neighborhoods in the waning afternoon light to get to his father’s store for a ride home.

Michael’s official start in the business was at age 13, when his father bought out a factory that sold lawn furniture and then put the young lad in charge of sales. “It was great. I was running the department,” Michael recalls. There was only one problem-he wasn’t legally allowed to work until age 14. So, his father kept track of his hours, and on his 14th birthday, he presented him with a check for his accumulated wages-at a whopping 65 cents an hour.

Zimman’s retail acumen, on display from a young age, is likely responsible for the store’s existence today. “The advent of shopping centers off the highways made for difficult times to compete in an urban setting,” he recalls. “It became apparent to me that we had to specialize in something. We always had fabrics and always did well.” So, Zimman closed the other departments and honed in on textiles, an area that Michael personally oversees to this day. He alone is responsible for purchasing the fabric, displayed on towering rollers that stretch in a seemingly endless array on the main floor. There, shoppers will find anything from a $29.99/yard cotton print to $149/yard exquisitely hand-embroidered fabric.

That seems like a lot of money for a textile, but Zimman insists that it’s a fair price, and much less than what competing design studios charge for the same fabric.

“While that seems like a crazy amount of money, when you go to a design showroom and start looking at things, it’s staggering how much they charge,” Zimman says, noting that his prices can be as little as a sixth of the price at a high-end design showroom. “We work on a smaller markup [than do design showrooms],” Zimman says, “so it becomes a more appealing price point. We have a lot less flash-and-dash and people walking around in silk ties.”

Certainly, there is very little flashiness on display when you enter the store. With a sign above the door that looks retro-because it is-and original tin in need of a paint job covering the ceiling and walls, it is clear that Zimman is more interested in letting the merchandise speak for itself than spending on interior upgrades. Worn blow-ups of historic black-and-white photos hang from 18-foot ceilings, showing the history of the business. Zimman and his staff work from a cramped pod of desks in a corner of the first floor, piled with papers and surrounded by people bustling about.

The environment may be less than luxurious, but that doesn’t stop well-heeled clients from arriving on a regular basis to shop. Staffers are working right now on a ski house in Maine. “We’re doing the entire interior of it, [including] the furniture, the window treatments-almost everything about the house,” says Operations Manager Patty Forster, adding that the cost of that project is definitely into five figures, bordering on six. But those figures aren’t unusual. One customer moved from the North Shore to Sonoma, California, and had furnishings for the new home shipped from Zimman’s. Another North Shore denizen outfitted a second home-in Greece-with  Zimman’s help.


Why such a devoted following? “I’d like to think we have a certain taste level. Whether it’s someone else’s taste level or not, it reflects who we are,” Michael says.

Hollywood has certainly found Zimman’s to its taste-since Massachusetts enacted tax credits to lure Hollywood productions to the state, Zimman’s has become the go-to place for set decoration. Stroll through the furniture showroom and you will see items used in films including 2009’s The Proposal, starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. And film production keeps the upholstery department busy as well, from a next-day upholstery job for Shutter Island (starring Leonard DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese), which involved a red-eyed courier carrying the leather from California, to preparing 900 seats for The Fighter, which stars Mark Wahlberg. It’s all in a day’s work.

“Any movie that was filmed in Boston, [production crews] made their way here,” Michael says. “They look at us as a real repository of textiles and furnishings that can fit many settings. So that’s been a fun thing. It’s a lot more work than the regular customers-you have to do things really fast. But it’s kind of fun, too, and all the employees get a kick out of it.” The bigger kick is sometimes had on the set, though; producers of the recent Pink Panther movie bought a unique $10,000 piece from the store, only to blow it up on screen.

Hunting down special items-even those slated for destruction-doesn’t actually require much travel, as purveyors selling furniture and textiles that will fit in Zimman’s oeuvre always make their way to Lynn. As Zimman himself says, “They will find us.”

While Zimman’s prides itself on an eclectic mix, Michael says customers are particularly drawn right now to an “ethnic casual” look-people are seeking comfort, clean lines, and a more contemporary look. That trend is very different from a few years ago, however.

“When people were putting up all these grand homes, everyone wanted to look at themselves as being in a very grand situation,” he says. “We were selling a lot of silks. Now, people are saying they are more comfortable with a nice plain linen drape.”

That’s not the only change. “When I started [working at Zimman’s in 2001], people would buy $10,000 and $15,000 armoires without batting an eye,” Forster recalls. “That’s not happening anymore.” Michael Zimman says the shop is weathering the current economic downturn well, but that isn’t giving him any confidence. “When the economy was [better], I pretty much knew what was going to happen from year to year,” he says. “Now, I have no idea. Not that your future is ever certain, but you could kind of project the next week, the next month, the next year.”

Zimman has ridden out recessions in the past, but he says this one feels different. “In previous recessionary times, honestly, I never noticed them. This is much closer to the DepressionÂ… The middle class is evaporating.” He admits it could be his age. “Perhaps some of the optimism of youth has faded. But the fact of the matter is there are fewer and fewer people with disposable income.”

It could be because of this economic uncertainty that Zimman isn’t pressing his own children to become the fourth generation in the family business. “I want them to feel like they are doing something that’s really secure,” he says. “If one of them came to me and said, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes,’ we’d have a conversation. But if it’s just for a paycheck, what’s the point? You have to have a certain amount of passion.”

In the short term, Zimman plans to keep evolving with the times, in a balancing act between keeping prices reasonable and offering a high degree of service. “It’s a great sense of pride for us to be really keeping it going,” he says. “We don’t sell anything that people need, but people don’t live by bread alone. There’s a lot to be said for having beauty in your life.”

The Portfolio

Headquarters: Lynn. Number of Employees: 20. Year Founded: 1903. Products: Textiles, furniture, and decorative items from around the world. Owner: Michael Zimman. Operations Manager: Patty Forster. Contact: 80 Market Street, Lynn, 781-598-9432,