Kevin Warnock

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Zimman’s sells sumptuous fabrics at fair prices

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Fabric for sale at Zimman's of Lynn, Massachusetts, USA. Picture from

Fabric for sale at Zimman's of Lynn, Massachusetts, USA. Picture from

The last time I worked for others, I worked for Jeff Zimman, Susan Philpot and Hank Barry.

I was at Cooley, LLP, a powerhouse law firm in Silicon Valley.

Zimman chaired the Document Automation Committee at Cooley, the entity to which I reported in my role as Computer Aided Lawyering Project Leader.

Jeff Zimman is currently the Chair of Posit Science, Inc., which produces software to help build and maintain cognitive function. Listeners to KQED public radio in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, are familiar with Posit Science because this software is always one of the gifts one may select if one becomes a financial sponsor of that radio station. I love KQED, by the way, and I listen to it almost every day. You may sponsor KQED online at this link.

Even though I have known Zimman for a majority of my professional life, I know little about him as a person. I know the basics – that he’s married to architect Ken Ruebush, the brother of my friend Susan Ruebush. I know Jeff Zimman used to be an investment banker at Lazard before co-founding Posit Science. I know Jeff Zimman used to be a newspaper reporter before he went to law school.

Thanks to Facebook, a currently well known social networking website based in Silicon Valley, I now know something new about Jeff Zimman.

Jeff Zimman’s grandfather Morris Zimman 103 years ago founded a treasure of a retail store named Zimman’s. This store is so lush, sumptuous and glorious that articles have been written about it. Gushing articles so colorful that they make one want to make a special trip to Zimman’s just wander the isles and touch the products.

What does Zimman’s sell? Here’s how their website explains it:

“Zimman’s offers one of the largest selections of decorative fabrics and passementerie, combined with a wonderful assortment of premium furnishings, exquisite accessories, lighting, rugs and custom products.

Located in Lynn, Massachusetts, Zimman’s is the country’s leading fine fabric, furniture, lighting and decorative accessories destination.”

Before today, I had never heard the word passementerie. This is what WikipediA has to say initially about passementerie:

“Passementerie or passementarie is the art of making elaborate trimmings or edgings (in French, passements) of applied braid, gold or silver cord, embroidery, colored silk, or beads for clothing or furnishings.

Styles of passementerie include the tassel, fringes (applied, as opposed to integral), ornamental cords, galloons, pompons, rosettes, and gimps as other forms. Tassels, pompons, and rosettes are point ornaments, and the others are linear ornaments.”

Zimman’s sells fabric.

Perhaps the nicest fabric I have ever seen — have a look at the photograph above.

The only store I can compare it to in the Bay Area is Britex Fabrics. But Britex is a premium priced emporium located in costly Union Square retail space. Prices at Britex are sky high such that it’s a turnoff to even browse.

Zimman’s by choice is located next to a 99-cent discount store, so their rent is affordable. The savings are passed on to customers, which results in Zimman’s being both affordable and magical at the same time.

It’s as if Neiman Marcus moved into a Costco and reused the same shelving to sells its luxury goods. Prices could drop dramatically if they didn’t have to support the exceptionally luxurious stores that they’re famous for.

Michael Zimman, current owner of Zimman's

Michael Zimman, current owner of Zimman's

Here’s what Michael Zimman, Jeff Zimman’s brother, has to say about the store he now rus:

“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.”

Jeanne OBrien Coffey writes:

“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 furniture… It’s a throwback, and people really love it.””

I do wonder after reading Coffey’s article if Jeff Zimman also spent a lot of time at Zimman’s while he was growing up, like his brother Michael did. Coffey writes:

“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.”

It is highly unusual for a lawyer to found a company. Jeff Zimman is certainly an entrepreneur. Posit Science is not an easy kind of company to start. They raised tens of millions of dollars in venture capital. They have world renowned scientists like Michael M. Merzenich, PhD on the team (see Merzenich’s extensive WikiPediA entry here). What Jeff Zimman has accomplished makes my head spin compared to what I have done in the software field.

I suspect that it is extremely likely that Jeff Zimman was profoundly influenced by his grandfather Morris Zimman, the founder of Zimman’s. Watching his grandfather build and operate a successful business had to help inspire him to leave the relative tranquility of lawyering and banking to become a startup founder. I run into Zimman only about yearly, but I will ask him about this connection the next time I see him.

Finally, a fun fact near to my heart — Zimman’s used to advertise on the sides of city transit buses. There is an animated graphic that plays as soon as you arrive at the Zimman’s website that shows the bus ‘driving’ from right to left across the top of the website. I was able to capture the bus in a screen shot after a few tries with Snag It screen capture software. Here is the result. As my readers know, I am a huge fan of buses, and I own a bus even larger than the one below, although now it’s a motorhome.

Zimman's home page with bus. Graphic from

Zimman's home page with bus. Graphic from

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Written by Kevin Warnock

January 21st, 2012 at 5:00 am

Posted in Opinion

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