Zoltan Zimmerman, whose Zimmerman’s Discount store was among the last of the old Kensington Market shops that sold a bit of everything and was a mainstay of the cacophonous neighbourhood for more than six decades, died in Toronto on Sept. 4. He had turned 93 just a few weeks earlier.
His was the classic tale of the Holocaust survivor who came to Canada to start afresh and succeeded through a combination of business smarts, bruisingly hard work and having a heart. For example, he freely extended credit. How did he know which customers needed it? “He could tell by their punim (faces),” said his son Danny, who was 13 when he started in the business.
“For over six decades, before there was Costco, there was Zimmerman’s,” said Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, rabbi emeritus of Beth Tzedec Congregation, in a eulogy sent from Israel. “Breakfast cereal and eggs, vegetables and canned goods, suitcases and jeans, personal care and plastic sandals. The shop grew.”
Situated on Augusta Avenue, Zimmerman’s was a fixture in the multi-ethnic neighbourhood. It helped that Zimmerman spoke Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Yiddish, German and a smattering of other languages. He not only gave credit, but cashed the paycheques of poor newcomers, some of whom could only endorse the cheques with an X.
“He loved his customers,” said his son. “He always said, ‘You learn from your customers.’ ”
But Zimmerman knew the area had changed and, in late 2014, he took the sale of the store – now an organic supermarket – in stride.
Zimmerman was born in 1926 in a Slovak village hard by the border with Hungary and Romania. His father farmed, traded in cattle and ran a grocery and general store. In 1944, the clan was deported to a nearby ghetto and then to Auschwitz, where his parents and a sister were murdered immediately. Zimmerman survived as a stable boy in the sister camp of Birkenau.
He arrived in Toronto in 1951 to join a sister and found work right away at a pickle factory and, later, at a scrap yard. Each evening, he worked some more at a Baldwin Street fruit market, whose owner agreed to sublease the store to Zimmerman and his cousin. They never looked back and, in 1953, sought larger premises on Augusta Avenue.
“The first couple weeks, we sold three truckloads of bananas on a Saturday. It was easy to do business, not like today,” Zimmerman told Toronto Life in 2014. “Back then, there were so many people, you couldn’t move. People were selling rabbits and chickens. It was different. There was a theatre nearby, and at night the people would come after the show, and there wasn’t anything you couldn’t sell. Potatoes, apples, anything cheap you would sell on the sidewalk.”
The simple fruit stand soon started selling meat, fish, dairy products, groceries, clothing and a wide array of household miscellany – “anything we thought our customers would buy,” Zimmerman wrote in a brief biography.
“He worked from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. He was the hardest-working man I ever met,” his son recalled. “But he loved the store.” At its peak, the shop occupied 7,000 square feet and had six delivery drivers.
“He was a happy man,” said Danny Zimmerman. “He had no bitterness. He always looked at the good. But he was tough in business, strong. On his deathbed, he told me, ‘Whatever I went through made me honest, humble and appreciative of what I have.’ ”
Zimmerman is survived by his wife of 63 years, Sara; a sister, Ella Hartman; children Alice Goldberger, Evelyn Farber and Danny Zimmerman; 13 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.