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Talking Business with David Zarin

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From time to time, we like to check in with the neighborhood’s business owners to see how things are going “on the front lines.” Recently, I stopped by Zarin Fabric Warehouse to chat with David Zarin, president of one of the Lower East Side’s iconic companies.

Zarin’s has come a long ways since its pushcart origins 75 years ago. Located on the corner of Orchard and Grand Street, the store boasts the largest selection of discounted drapery and upholstery fabric in the city. David began running the family business in 2007, after spending six years working for a real estate investing firm.

In the past three years, he’s kept a high profile in the neighborhood. David is executive vice president of the LES Business Improvement District. He’s part of a new generation seeking to recapture the neighborhood’s historic reputation as a retail powerhouse.

Zarin’s has weathered the economic downturn about as well as could be expected. David told me there continue to be ups and downs. There may be small signs of economic recovery, but he’s not ready to declare the tough times over just yet. At one time the Zarin family owned quite a bit of real estate on the Lower East Side, but sold most of its properties a couple of years ago. They do not own the Orchard Street store.

In the past, the family has considered moving somewhere else in the city. David says they’d still be open to relocating for a better deal but, realistically, any other neighborhood in Manhattan would cost more, not less.  Unlike a lot of other stores, Zarin’s is not dependent on business from the neighborhood. Most big buyers are designers willing to travel anywhere in New York for the right product at the best price. At the same time, Zarin’s is happy to have the patronage of loyal Lower East Side customers who know a bargain when they see one.

David feels passionately that the city and state must find ways to help small and mid-sized businesses thrive. He’s been outspoken about the burdensome rules, regulations, fees and fines imposed on companies and property owners fighting for survival. For example, businesses must pay a $400 fee just for the Fire Department to inspect rooftop air conditioning units,, whether those inspections are actually conducted or not. When the Zarin family went to sell a building not so long ago, they discovered a bill from the city for almost $90,000.  The fines were the work of a spiteful inspector who had relentlessly been writing tickets for improperly bundled garbage, he says.

David would like to see small companies on the receiving end of tax incentives.  He wouldn’t want to deny large businesses, such as big box stores, these kinds of benefits. But at the same time, he believes the little guy should be given some help, as well. He told me it only makes sense to bolster the small-scale employers who form the economic backbone of New York City.

David’s optimistic about the future of the Business Improvement District. The organization’s new executive director, Bob Zuckerman was hired, in part, to strengthen the BID’s relations with Community Board 3.  David says the BID has a strong desire to work collaboratively with the broader community.  He expects the BID will continue to play an active role in the discussions about the redevelopment of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area.  He believes the neighborhood would benefit from a mixed use development (residential and commercial), including market rate as well as affordable housing.

Oh, and about his step-mom? David says Jill Zarin’s status as a reality TV star has both helped and hurt the company. While the prime time television exposure has definitely made Zarin’s a household name nationwide, there’s probably also a backlash. At the end of the day, David says, it all goes with the territory when you’re running the family business!

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