August 2005

The Nation Reviewed

“No looking with the hands”

By Tony Wilson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

“Job” is a terrific noun and an even better verb: I job, you job. It has its violent side – If you don’t shut your face I’ll job you one – but it can also be a verb of peace, a verb of commerce. In the rag trade it’s about speculation, about buying cheap and selling cheap, with the good ones knowing which way to tilt the balance. On June 26 Melbourne lost one of the great ones when Jacob Zeimer, owner of the Job Warehouse shop at 56-58 Bourke Street, died aged 91.

For those who have never been inside Job Warehouse, think wall to wall fabric, double the amount you were just thinking of, double it again, then arrange the bolts from floor to ceiling, from back wall to shopfront display window, with the haphazard flair of a kid playing pick-up-sticks. Think rich fabrics. Think poor fabrics. When Harry Potter goes to Diagon Alley to grab some robes, he goes to Job Warehouse. Think spectacular designs, as wild as you like. Think heavy chenille, think dungarees and drabbet, think gingham and pashmina. Think the finest and the rarest. Think dead flies and the odd stray sandwich. Think bridal, suits, opera, army. Think every type of material you’ve ever heard of and then double that too. Think of a building built before the gold rush, before Windex. Think of a leaking masonite-patched roof. Think colour as far as the eye can see – which in the dimly-lit clothy claustrophobia of Job Warehouse isn’t very far. Think of a lighting scheme from an era before 7-Eleven fluorescence; a lighting scheme to fall in love under.

“Not everybody loves everybody but I dearly loved my neighbour Mr Zeimer.” Sisto Malaspina, co-owner of Pellegrini’s espresso bar, served his friend coffee for 31 of the 55 years Mr Zeimer ran the shop next door, in the shadows of Parliament House. “He would have his coffee and then sit down and feed the birds. He’d ask for bread to feed the birds.” Sisto, resplendent in his cravat, pours a constant stream of espresso. “He gave me my best ever business advice. Look after the business and the business will end up looking after you.”

Jacob and his brother Max stepped off the boat from Europe in 1948, two penniless Holocaust refugees from a Jewish family that had worked in the Polish cloth trade for generations. Within a decade Jacob had flourished sufficiently to purchase real estate – allegedly for $105,000 – at the top of Bourke Street. He leaves behind a portfolio of 15 city shops worth an estimated $5 million. One of the many stories about Jacob, passed on by Sally, a former tenant, is that he once bought fabric from the basement at Myer and then sold it back to them on the third floor at a profit.

“His main thing was humility,” Sisto grins. “He always insisted on paying for the little milk he would get for his tea. Often we’d have an argument over 20 cents but he’d say to me: ‘This is business. I pay.’” In the 15 minutes I’m sitting with him Sisto gives out three free coffees, yells two “hellos” and just about hugs a hawker. If the legend is true, it’s a different customer relations policy to the one practised next door.

“He [Mr Zeimer] took one look at me,” recalls Erin, a disgruntled shopper, “and yelled: ‘Out! No browsing, just buying!’” Another short-lived customer claims that in trying to access a particular material she once had to move an errant banana that had been left lying on a bolt of cloth. She was spotted with the banana and shown the door: “No food in shop! You will have to leave.” Tony Martin and Mick Molloy, The Late Show comedians, were booted out in the early 1990s only to sneak back in later, first in Groucho Marx glasses and then in a horse costume (“Whinny if there’s trouble”).

Alex, a former employee, says the stories are exaggerated. “He was a great guy, a beautiful guy. He never really used to kick out anyone unless he was sure they weren’t going to buy – although admittedly, he didn’t like tire kickers.” Alex insists that Mr Zeimer was generally polite to customers and that his behaviour is sometimes confused with his brother Max’s. “Max could be quite grouchy. He was definitely affected by the concentration camps. ‘No looking with the hands!’ was his catchcry. ‘You want to look, you go to Myer’s.’” When Max died a few years ago Mr Zeimer, in an act of sentimentality, closed the haberdashery section that Max had run.

Alex remembers that Mr Zeimer was particularly respectful of and attentive to his best customers. On one occasion in the 1980s a grand old dame of the theatre came in to order some costumes. “She was old and doddery and in need of a walking cane,” says Alex. “She was also incontinent, and as Mr Zeimer fussed about her, trying to make her feel comfortable, she wet the floor. Without missing a beat, Mr Zeimer had turned her around and was pointing at me to grab a bolt of black cotton. ‘Alech, Alech,’ he whispered, ‘grab that.’ He then threw the bolt on the floor, rolled it with his foot and kicked it into a corner. A week later, the same bolt was pulled out and Mr Zeimer made the sale.” Alex laughs. “Working for him was a lot of fun. It was a scream actually.”

One regular customer, Christine, says her ploy once inside the shop was to buy a small amount of something. Then, while the money was moving along a long chain of hands and the receipt was being written, she’d sneak in a bit of browsing. “You had to know what you wanted,” says Gaby, another regular, “but if you were looking for individual, vintage and unusual fabrics it was the place to go. Some of the stuff was water-damaged and rotting. Some was just beautiful.”

Allan, the husband of a former tenant, agrees. “The fabrics were amazing, the best in the world.” He also witnessed some spectacular bridal meltdowns. “Every now and then there’d be these explosions out on the street, and brides and bridesmaids would be chasing three metres of pink material they’d ordered for the wedding. And Mr Zeimer would be out the front, trying to calm them, saying: ‘It doesn’t matter, I’ve got it here in powder blue. What’s the difference? This week powder blue, half-price.’”

Sophie, a current tenant, remembers a strange negotiation for the space Mr Zeimer was then using as a storeroom. “He wanted us to find his wedding ring. It’d been lost for something like 30 years, and it was almost like it was part of the negotiation. We cleaned junk out for three weeks – broom brushes, pieces of lace, goggles, septic needles, buttons, car covers, blankets, boxes of old size-six shoes from the 1920s. Eight large dump bins’ worth. And then on the third weekend, just as I’m telling my mate Spider how much it would mean to Mr Zeimer if we found his ring, he chimes in and says: ‘Is this it?’ I think I said, ‘That’s pretty funny Spider’, until he convinced me it wasn’t one of his. It was actually quite huge. He had big hands.”

Returning the ring was a memorable moment. “He just about had tears in his eyes. He thanked me and thanked me … And he wore the ring every day since. Right through the last year of his life.”

Back at Pellegrini’s, Sisto rinses another coffee cup and glances out the window. “We’ll miss him in our little village. The birds don’t seem to be hanging around so much now.”

Tony Wilson
Tony Wilson is a broadcaster and the author of Making News and Players.

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