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Barry Zimman; ran landmark Lynn store, wasn’t averse to change

Mr. Zimman graduated from Bowdoin College, where he played football.

Zimman family

Mr. Zimman graduated from Bowdoin College, where he played football.

Returning home from serving in the Navy during World War II, Barry Zimman decided to pursue a career in retail like his father. A Lithuanian immigrant, Morris Zimman had opened a dry goods store that sold mostly clothing in West Lynn in 1909.

“My father always had an interest in his customers,” Mr. Zimman told the Globe in 1999. “He wanted to give them the best value for their dollar. Plus the whole family helped out — my mother and my brothers and me. We worked after school and during vacations. But I was the only one who went into the business.”

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Mr. Zimman, however, wanted to introduce to a general retail operation the concept of self-service shopping. Already in use in some grocery stores, the self-service approach allowed patrons to choose items off shelves, rather than wait for assistance from clerks.

His father resisted the idea, so in 1948 Mr. Zimman opened one of the region’s first self-service department stores in a building a short distance from the current Zimman’s in Lynn.

Mr. Zimman, who with his son Michael reinvented the store again in the 1970s as suburban malls began to draw shoppers away from downtowns, died of congestive heart disease Thursday in his Canton home. He was 92 and previously had lived mostly in Marblehead and Lynn.

In the late 1950s, Mr. Zimman bought the store’s present Lynn location, a three-story building with leaded windows and tin ceilings and walls.

During the shopping-mall boom of the 1970s that shuttered department stores in many downtowns, the Zimman family transformed their Lynn store by focusing on fabrics and textiles, while phasing out other items.

In 1994, Mr. Zimman told the Globe that the family business succeeded because it adapted to a changing retail climate.

“We were a complete line department store, and we saw that wasn’t viable anymore,” he said. “It wasn’t peculiar to Lynn. It happened everywhere. We made our store a destination so that we could be almost anywhere to do business.”

In the early days of the family business, many immigrants were drawn to the store in part because Morris Zimman spoke several languages, including Polish, Lithuanian, German, and Russian.

Mr. Zimman called his father “a very positive person” who “thought everything he did was the right thing.” Eventually, Morris closed the original store to sell textiles from the basement of his son’s self-service department store.

Michael Zimman of Brookline, the third generation to run the family’s business, said Mr. Zimman changed and adapted the company over the years by adding and closing stores, including locations in Salem, Reading, and Taunton, and by developing new ventures such as a mail-order business called Americana Yarn.

The stores themselves also changed from department stores to discount stores to the sole-location fabric and home-furnishings store that is Zimman’s today.

It was Michael who wanted to turn the Lynn store’s second-floor storage space into an emporium of carpets and lamps, furniture and mirrors, paintings and accessories.

Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff

Zimman’s second-floor emporium of carpets, lamps, and furniture, as it looked in 1998.

In the 1999 Globe interview, Mr. Zimman conceded that just as his own father resisted the self-service shopping concept, he himself was “a little bit dubious” about the emporium idea. But Michael “was so gung-ho I said go ahead,” Mr. Zimman said. “I’m very pleased with the results.”

Born in 1920, Barry Zimman grew up in Lynn and spent summers in Hull, where he helped care for his grandmother and once met New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth.

He graduated from Lynn Classical High School in 1938 and went to Bowdoin College, where he played football and received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1942.

Mr. Zimman met Phyllis Fisher, a student at Westbrook Junior College in Maine, while walking off the Bowdoin football field after a victory, his son said. They married in 1944.

After Mr. Zimman graduated from Bowdoin, he had offers to play professional football, but turned them down in favor of attending medical school, his son said.

Mr. Zimman left school in 1944 to enlist in the Navy, serving as a communications officer on an ammunitions ship in the Pacific. After the war ended, he decided to pursue a career in retail rather than medicine.

He and his wife, who died in 1995, settled in Lynn, and then moved to Marblehead to raise their five sons.

Mr. Zimman worked “from 10 to 10, six days a week,” his son said.

Although Mr. Zimman eased up on his hours about six years ago, his son said that if “you asked him, he’d say he never retired. He was always coming in, looking around, talking to employees and customers.”

Mr. Zimman formerly was president of the Chamber of Commerce in Lynn. He helped found an association of merchants, and the Lynn Museum has named Zimman’s a Lynn Legacy. Mr. Zimman and his wife also had served on a committee on race relations in Lynn.

Until recently, Mr. Zimman hosted large family gatherings, his son said. He enjoyed swimming and rowing, and was a voracious reader who limited his literature to Shakespeare in the last few years of his life.

“He was a giant, a big man,” his son Michael said. “He had a full life and he loved living.”

A service was held Monday for Mr. Zimman, who in addition to his son Michael leaves four other sons, Robert of Reston, Va., Richard of Ripon, Wis., and Jonathan and Jeffrey, both of San Francisco; 10 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

Mr. Zimman was 9 in the summer months of 1930 when he met and shared a watermelon with Babe Ruth, Michael said.

At the time, Mr. Zimman was staying at his grandmother’s house in the Green Hill neighborhood of Hull. A neighbor, who was a newspaper sportswriter and a good friend of Ruth, was spending the summer in Hull because of ill health.

Ruth paid a visit to the sportswriter “and brought along a watermelon,” Mr. Zimman’s son wrote in an e-mail. “My dad and other neighborhood children were invited to join them in the watermelon feast.”

Kathleen McKenna
can be reached at kmck66@comcast.net.

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