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“No Looking With The Hands”

‘Job’ is a terrific noun and an even better verb. I job, you job, he she or it jobs. 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. Buying cheap, selling cheap, with the good ones knowing the way to tilt the balance. Sadly, on the 26th of June 2005, Melbourne lost one of the great ones when Jacob Zeimer of Bourke Street’s Job Warehouse died at the age of 91.

For those who have never seen Job Warehouse at 58-60 Bourke Street, think wall to wall fabric, double the amount you were just thinking of, double it again, and then arrange the bolts from floor to ceiling with the haphazard flair of a kid playing pick-up-sticks. When Harry Potter goes to Diagon Alley to grab some robes, he goes to Job Warehouse. Think rich fabrics. Think poor fabrics. Think spectacular designs, as wild as you like. (If you’ve just envisioned an old TAA logo jazzed up with a Weg cartoon, that’s the idea) Think lush beautiful velvets. Think the finest and the rarest. Think dead flies and the odd stray sandwich. Think bridal, think suits, think opera, think 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, cloth claustrophobia of Job Warehouse, isn’t very far. Think of a lighting scheme from an era before 7-11 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 business mentor a coffee for 31 of the 55 years Jacob Zeimer worked there 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 Zeimer was a brilliantly successful businessman. With his brother Max, he arrived off the boat from Europe, both penniless Holocaust refugees from a Jewish family that had worked in the Polish cloth trade for generations. Within a decade, Jacob Zeimer had flourished sufficiently to purchase real estate at the top of Bourke Street, allegedly for $105,000. According to his obituary in The Age, he leaves behind a portfolio of fifteen city shops now worth about $5 million. One of the legendary 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 twenty cents, but he’d say to me, ‘This is business. I pay.’

In the fifteen minutes I’m sitting there, 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 pursued next door. On our radio show, the Triple R Breakfasters, I only have to mention Job Warehouse, and the switchboard lights up with callers claiming to have been kicked out or told off for browsing.

‘He took one look at me and yelled ‘Out! No browsing, just buying!’ recalled Erin. Another claimed that in trying to access a particular material, she had had to move an errant banana that had been left lying on a bolt of cloth. At some point, she was spotted with the banana, and was shown the door for eating. ‘No food in shop! You will have to leave.’ The Late Show’s Tony Martin and Mick Molloy were famously booted out in the early nineties, only to return first in Groucho Marx glasses, and then in a full 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 whilst Jacob Zeimer was generally polite to customers, his behaviour is sometimes confused with that of his brother Max.

‘Max could be quite grouchy. He was definitely affected by the concentrations camps. “No looking with the hands!’ was his catch-cry. ‘You want to look, you go to Myers.’ When Max Zeimer passed away a few years ago, Mr Zeimer closed the haberdashery section he’d let Max run.’ In an interview in the Age in 1995, Jacob said he planned to leave it closed ‘for another few years. To be sentimental.’

Alex also remembers that Jacob Zeimer was particularly respectful and attentive to his best customers. On one occasion in the eighties, a grand old dame of the theatre came to order some costumes. ‘She was old and dottery and in need of a walking cane,’ the former employee recalls. ‘She was also incontinent – and as Mr Zeimer fussed about her, trying to make her feel comfortable, she just 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, Sally, says that her ploy was to buy a small amount of anything, and 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.

As another customer, Gaby put it, ‘You had to know what you wanted, 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 remembers witnessing some spectacular bridal meltdowns. ‘Every now and then, there’d be these explosions out on the street, and it’d be brides and bridesmaids chasing three metres of pink material they’d have 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.’ A fondness is there in Allan’s voice. ‘He was a very comprehending man. There was a bit of humour in it all.’

A current tenant, Sophie of Crossley and Scott Gallery, remembers a very 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 thirty 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.’

Sophie describes returning the ring as a memorable moment, and one that enhanced her relationship with her landlord. ‘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.’

As for myself, I’m sad that I never met Mr Zeimer. That I was never served, admonished, startled, amazed, advised, counseled, kitted out or kicked out by one of the most interesting and successful retail proprietors that this city has known. Because Jacob Zeimer was a link to Melbourne’s past; a link to post-war immigration and textile manufacture; a time when Flinders Lane was Flinders Lane and jobbers had jobs.

Back at Pellegrini’s, as Sisto rinses another coffee cup, and glances out the window, it’s clear that he is sad for more personal reasons.

“We’ll miss him in our little village. The birds don’t seem to be hanging around so much now.’