Era Ends as 78-Year-Old Men’s Store Calls It Quits
The shelves were almost empty in the final days of Zellman’s Menswear in Boyle Heights. About a dozen men’s jackets hung from the racks and some baseball caps lined the wall. Shoes were going for 99 cents; pants were half off. Even the headless mannequins were for sale.
After 78 years in business, the landmark Cesar Chavez Avenue clothing shop cleared out its merchandise and closed its doors Saturday. Dean Zellman, the third-generation owner, said he wants to focus his energy on his six-month-old Sherman Oaks store that specializes in embroidery and silk screening.
For the last few decades, Zellman’s had been the last remaining testament to a time when Boyle Heights was the largest Jewish community west of Chicago. When Elmer Zellman opened his men’s haberdashery in 1921 on what was then called Brooklyn Avenue, delis, kosher butcher shops and pickled herring stands lined the street. Now those businesses have faded away, replaced with carnicerias, panaderias and taco stands.
Elmer’s grandson Dean started working in the store when he was 7 years old, fetching layaways on busy Friday nights when young men came to pick up their suits and swap tips about the big parties that night.
“There’s a certain amount of regret [in leaving],” said Zellman, who plans to stay on the board of the Boyle Heights Chamber of Commerce. “But I would rather people celebrated the almost 80 years we have of serving Boyle Heights, rather than focus on the fact that we are moving.”
This afternoon his family is hosting a farewell celebration at the store, and has issued an open invitation to community members and longtime customers to come and share their memories of the old establishment.
In one corner of the room, the Zellmans kept a carefully arranged shrine to the history of the store. There’s a 1928 picture of a dapper Elmer Zellman in the haberdashery, an elegant establishment with gleaming glass display cases and polished wood shelves. There’s a copy of the original lease, renting the space for $90 a month.
Dean’s father, Manny, whose family lived behind the first store, was on hand to greet the final shoppers. He used to work in the shop seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. In the last few years, the 80-year-old came in about three days a week.
“I have a lot of good memories of this store, of the people who shopped here,” Manny Zellman said with a fond smile. “I know I’ll miss it. It’s been a big part of my life.”
During the last week, longtime customers came in to say goodbye, many saddened by the loss of the historic business. “We’ll miss you, Manny!” they said, poking their heads in the door. Some reminisced about the store as they picked through the dwindling stock.
“When I walked by and saw they were closing, I couldn’t believe it,” said Cecelia Aranda, 31, as her young daughter Valerie hid in the racks of clothes. “My grandfather shopped here. My uncle bought his wedding suit here, ages ago.”
Manny Zellman was there the whole time. He got started in the business at the age of 12, sweeping the floors. After four years in the Army, he and his brother took over the store from their father, Elmer. Ten years ago, he sold it to Dean.
In the old days, he said, people gathered on the corners of Brooklyn Avenue from morning until night, talking animatedly “about politics and life.”
“The atmosphere was so warm, so sociable,” he said.
During the last few years, he would stand outside and watch the still-bustling neighborhood, the women pushing baby carriages, the young children racing down the sidewalk. As always, he chatted with passersby and told corny jokes to teenagers walking by.
“I think I say hi to about 1,000 people a day,” he said.
His family owns the building, but he does not know yet who is going to take over the space that housed his family’s shop.
On Friday, he stood at the front door and pointed to the cursive sign reading “Zellman’s” inlaid in the sidewalk. “This is going to stay here always, as far as I’m concerned.”