Bobby Zarin, Jill Zarin, David Zarin; December 2015. Photos courtesy of Zarin Fabrics/Andrew Werner.
Throughout 2016, Zarin Fabrics has been celebrating its 80th anniversary on the Lower East Side. Over the years on The Lo-Down, we’ve reported on the current state of the business (it’s doing well). But until now, we haven’t focused on the history of Zarin’s, which calls itself New York’s “largest resource of discounted designer fabrics.” Recently, third generation owner David Zarin talked with us about the company’s LES beginnings.
As a teenager, Harry Zarin went to work on Orchard Street in the fabric business, before going out on his own in 1936. He opened a tiny shop at 173 Orchard St. that, according to his grandson, “was so small that (Harry) couldn’t have people in the store. He was only able to fill the store with his inventory, which were bolts of fabric.” Eventually, Harry began sending fabric to a shop down the street, where another merchant created ready-made blinds in standard sizes. “He would put them on hangers in plastic and just sell them like hot cakes,” said Zarin. Before long, he and another tenant in the building saved up enough money to purchase the property. The tenement, located on the northwest corner of Orchard and Rivington streets, remains in the Zarin family today. He also picked up another building across Orchard Street (where the Hotel Indigo is now located), using it mainly for storage.
Orchard Street, 1936. Photo courtesy of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA); La Guardia and Wagner Archives/CUNY.
Zarin’s operated from that little shop on Orchard Street for decades before the company went into expansion mode. In the 1960s or 1970s, David Zarin isn’t sure of the exact time frame, the shop took a much larger space at 292 Grand St., where Hong Kong Furniture is now located. It spread out over two floors, plus the basement, and began introducing new product lines.
Harry Zarin’s son, Bobby, remembers working in the store as a kid. He’d watch over the merchandise lined up on the street, and make a few sales. Zarin told Hamptons.com, “All of Orchard Street was lined up as far as the eye can see with these pushcarts selling stores’ wares.” In later years, he’d come down to work in the store after getting off work (Bobby Zarin was a special education teacher during the Vietnam War). After the war, Zarin joined the business full time.
A framed photo of Harry Zarin hangs over David Zarin’s desk in the store.
In 1974, Bobby Zarin opened a side business, making the store a distributor for drapery, hardware and upholstery supplies. David Zarin explained, “Every other store (on the Lower East Side back then) was a decorating store, so they were making curtains, they were doing upholstery, they were selling fabric. My father saw an opportunity to sell all of the accoutrements to that industry.”
The business was so successful that Zarin’s needed more space. They purchased another building, 105-107 Eldridge St., where Fontana’s Bar was located until earlier this year. Building owners at the time were anxious to unload their properties in a neighborhood that was anything but desirable. Bobby Zarin made a handshake deal with the owner, acquiring the building for $135,000. The drapery and upholstery business operated out of the ground floor and then, in the 1980s, Zarin’s began manufacturing vertical blinds from the second floor.
Zarin Fabrics, 1992, New York Magazine.
In the late 1980s, David Zarin believes it was November of 1987, the business suffered a big setback. One day, a worker using a blowtorch at 292 Grand St. inadvertently set some fabric ablaze. The building was engulfed in flames and much of the inventory ruined. In the aftermath of that disaster, David Zarin said, “My father and my grandfather thought, ‘That’s it, we’re out of business.’”
But it did not take them long to come up with a plan. Bobby Zarin took the fabric he could salvage over to a second floor space at 72 Allen St., which he had rented a few years earlier for storage. At the time, it did not seem like a promising move. Stores in those days were located exclusively on the ground floor, where the hordes of shoppers visiting the Lower East Side “bargain district” could easily find them. So Bobby Zarin got a friend with a convertible to drive him around the neighborhood, while he shouted into a bullhorn, cajoling shoppers to venture upstairs.
But there was a problem. Local police did not take kindly to the bullhorn, which was being used for a purely commercial purpose. Only public service announcements were permitted, they said. That’s all Zarin needed to hear. The next day, he got back in the car, bullhorn in hand, broadcasting a new message: “Please visit Harry Zarin Company, our new location, the second floor of 72 Allen St., and don’t forget to vote.”
Bobby Zarin kept up his unconventional marketing campaign for months, and it worked. There were still many fabric stores on the Lower East Side at that point, but as David Zarin pointed out, “There weren’t any big fabric warehouses. Most of the companies were decorating stores, where they maybe had some fabric, but they were primarily focused on the manufacture of window treatments and upholstery.” The Grand street store eventually reopened, but it was never as successful as the new warehouse. Zarin’s eventually closed it, consolidating different parts of the company and leasing ground floor space in the warehouse building. They slowly took over storefronts in the building from two other businesses, a hat store and a clothing shop called Fishkin Knitwear.
Like his father, David Zarin worked in the fabric store part-time while he was still in school. After college, he joined the business, helping to manage the family’s real estate holdings. In 1998, Zarin convinced his dad to let him live in the Eldridge Street building with some friends, while they planned to renovate the property. It was a 3,000 square foot apartment in horrible condition. “There were at least 15 buckets around the apartment (to collect water flowing from the ceiling),” said Zarin. “You could see through the floors. I lived there for a little less than a year while we worked on the plan to renovate.”
David Zarin later went to graduate school and spent several years in private real estate investment. But Zarin Fabrics suffered another setback that drew him back into the retail business. A manager who was brought in to help oversee Zarin’s embezzled about $1.5 million by setting up phony shell corporations and diverting money into those companies. Another manager brought in to run day-to-day operations didn’t work out. “It was getting to the point, said David Zarin, where there were serious concerns about the future of the store. “That’s when I stepped in and I said, ‘I always wanted to run the family business. It’s been around for so long. It’s a good business.’”
Zarin Fabrics headquarters at Allen and Grand streets.
David Zarin has been president of the company since 2007. In recent years, the store has gotten a publicity boost from David’s stepmom, who starred in the “Real Housewives of New York City” for four years. But there are other reasons Zarin’s has prospered. For starters, almost all of the store’s competitors have fled for Midtown or the Flatiron District. The business has benefited from being the “last man standing” on the Lower East Side.
“The old-time feeling that we still have here, especially on our second floor,” said Zarin,” is a big draw for customers. There are employees who have been around for 20 years or more. “It’s like a family,” he explained. “This is an old world business. They’re old world people. They’re experts in what they do. They know how to source fabric, get the upholstery work done right. They’re just so passionate about the business.”
Zarin also said the business benefits from a strong foundation. “My grandfather and my father built up this great reputation of providing great service, great work, great fabrics, great pricing and quality.” In the age of big box stores and online shopping a lot has changed, but Zarin’s has managed to navigate a tough industry.
“Our edge,” said Zarin, “is that we go directly to the mill. The fabric houses in the D&D Building (Decoration & Design Building in Midtown) and throughout the country, they go to these mills and they buy the fabrics at the same price we buy it for. But they have to produce thousands of fabric sample books and send them to designers all over the country. They have to have hundreds of employees. They have to have showrooms in expensive buildings. They might mark up something ten times. We don’t have to do that. We can charge a fair price for something we pay a fair price for.”
Bobby Zarin was a leader of the Lower East Side Merchants’ Association, which later became the Lower East Side BID and is now known as the LES Partnership. David Zarin has followed in his footsteps, serving on the organization’s executive committee for the past several years. “We’re very invested in the community,” said Zarin. His hope is that the company will be able to stay on Allen Street for years to come. But Zarin is a realist and he’s keeping a wary eye on the Lower East Side real estate market. “It will be interesting to see what happens,” he said. “Hopefully this won’t turn into another Soho or Chelsea,” making the cost of doing business too great in the old neighborhood. “Hopefully rent won’t go through the roof and businesses like mine will be able to stay here.”
Zarin Fabrics is located at 69 Orchard St. (There’s also an entrance to the warehouse on Allen Street). A couple of years ago, a showroom was opened, offering home furnishings, gift items and a small selection of furniture.