Q&A: Zoltan and Danny Zimmerman, the father and son who resisted change in Kensington Market, until now

Q&A: Zoltan and Danny Zimmerman, the father and son who resisted change in Kensington Market, until now

(Image: Claire Foster) (Image: Claire Foster)
 

Change can breed controversy in any neighbourhood, but the prospect of turnover in Kensington Market gets preservationists especially wound up. Last week, the media learned that Zimmerman’s Discount—which has been selling groceries and other household miscellany in the heart of Kensington for over six decades—is closing to make way for an organic grocery store. Zoltan Zimmerman, who founded the store all those years ago, and Danny Zimmerman, his son and business partner, have lived most of their lives on the corner of Augusta Avenue and Baldwin Street. With their time as neighbourhood mainstays now drawing to a close, we caught up with them for a talk about the area’s history, and its uncertain future.

How did Zimmerman’s originate?
Danny: My dad started in 1951. He’s an immigrant from Czechoslovakia; he survived the holocaust. When he first came to Toronto, he was working at a factory, and at night he would work at a fruit and vegetable store at 200 Baldwin, in Kensington, and help with the cleanup and everything.

Zoltan: The owner was a gambler, you know, so he’d go out. After around a year and a half, I saw a “for sale” sign here, on Augusta Avenue.

Danny: The market was busy, things were happening and lots of immigrants were coming. So, he had a fruit and vegetable store, and he worked nonstop—from four in the morning to 11 o’ clock at night. There were three houses in a row that he bought to expand the store. He bought the first one, then the next one went up for sale and he bought that, then the next one, and he expanded the store again. He’s one of the hardest working men you’ll ever meet.

So how was business at first?
Zoltan: I wish business today was like it was. The first couple weeks, we sold three truckloads of bananas on a Saturday. It was easy to do business, not like today. People wanted to buy European food, and I knew right away what they wanted: dried stuff like beans and rice.

Today, the store sells a mix of clothing, household items and mostly non-perishable groceries. How did the place evolve?
Danny: Originally it was fruit and vegetables, then groceries, meat, fish and cheeses. It was a complete supermarket.

What was your routine like back then?
Zoltan: To tell you the truth, in Europe, you never work by the hour. I grew up in a village, and there was only one clock and it was in the church. When the sun is there, it’s 12 o’clock. It was a different life.

Where did you live when you first opened the store?
Zoltan: I lived with my brother and sister on the second floor at 220 Augusta. I was single, and I slept on the floor. Eventually I went and bought a bed, a steel bed with wheels. The guy told me that delivery was a dollar, and I told him, “This thing has wheels. I’m going to wheel it home.” So I tied a piece of string to it and pulled it home.

What was the market like in those days?
Zoltan: 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. People came and they wanted cheap stuff. It was easy for me to do business. When I came from Europe, I spoke all the Slavic languages, so it was easy to do business.

And Danny, when did you get involved?
Danny: After my bar mitzvah, I used to come here on weekends. Throughout high school I came down as well, and then I went to university and worked summers, and when I graduated I started working here, and I didn’t leave until now.

What has it been like for you to see the neighbourhood change over the years?
Zoltan: It’s completely different. Young people, you know, they don’t need markets. They have cars. They need parking space. They need pet food. They go to restaurants. Before, we couldn’t close at 10 o’clock at night. In the morning, I’d come here at six in the morning, and people were standing in line. They didn’t have refrigerators, so they’d have to buy everything in the morning.

You guys must have seen some characters over the years.
Zoltan: I’ll tell you a story. Kensington used to be too hot in the summer. There was no air conditioning. So I went to sleep on the roof for a couple of nights. There were trees and fresh air up there. I woke up and there were about a half a dozen homeless people up there with me. I woke up, and I had more friends.

A lot of people are worried that Kensington Market will lose its character. Has that ever worried you?
Danny: The market will always be the market. It’s surrounded by four major streets. Major businesses, if they come in, they could help the market as an anchor. But I don’t think they’ll ever dominate.

When did you make the decision to close the shop down?
Danny: It was an idea that we’d been tossing around in our minds for a while. Should we try to build up the business? Fight for the business? But then we looked at our lives and where we were. We both have large families. And family life was never a priority for us. It was always business first. We decided to enjoy life as a family and not have the business in the back of our minds.

How did you decide what would replace the shop?
Danny: That was mostly my dad, and his nieces and nephews, who own the building with him. They know that my dad worked very hard over the years, so they’ve never pressured him to make an exit.

Do you consider this a defeat?
Danny: Every business is a battle. Were there obstacles that were beyond our control? Yes, there were. Unfortunately, the demographics changed. In our heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, we had large communities coming down to the market, and they didn’t have Walmarts or other big stores. The market has that flavour, so we could stretch it out a little bit longer, but there’s only so much you can do.

What’s next for you?
Danny: That’s a very good question. Do you have a crystal ball? I have no idea. Hopefully good things.