The History of Zahner’s
In 1908 Alex Giber began his tailor shop in the bustling industrial and fabric producing mill in Rockville, CT. It was a natural as the fabric produced in Rockville, a small section of Vernon, was being worn by United States presidents and was recognized for its quality worldwide (See photo below).
The tailor shop grew, moved to several different locations, survived the depression of the 1930’s, and flourished as the mills enjoyed the prosperity of the 1940’s. Unfortunately, tailor Giber died suddenly in 1946. The tailor shop which had become a small haberdashery by this time was purchased from the estate by Ernie Diggleman. Mr. Diggleman ran the shop until May of 1951 when Edward (my uncle) and Emanuel (Manny-my father) Zahner purchased it from him.
The Zahner Years
For those familiar with the downtown Rockville section of the town of Vernon, the store was located across from the town green. Currently, the area is occupied by Dave’s Cobbler Shop. In 1951 Rockville was a bustling downtown attracting customers from the surrounding communities of Ellington, Tolland, Bolton, East Windsor, South Windsor, and Manchester. A trolley car also ran from Rockville through Tolland to Stafford. Rockville was such an important woolen fabric producing center that a rail line ran from Hartford through East Hartford and Manchester to Rockville. The purpose of this Hartford connection was to allow the transport of the fine fabric to New York City and world markets.
My father worked for many years in various positions in the wool mills. His work in the finishing and shipping departments allowed him access to some of the finest fabrics produced in the world. This experience taught him the ability to “feel” great cloth to determine its nature and the best use of the cloth, ie some are better for coats and some for pants or other uses. His knowledge has been extremely beneficial to me in being helpful to clients in choosing long-lasting fabrics for their clothing needs. (As a side note, and fast forwarding 63 years, I cannot understand how anyone could order a suit online without “feeling” the fabric…more on that later in the fabric area). My father, the son of an immigrant farmer who left his native Germany at age 14 with $10, lost his mom at age 18, spent 4 years in WWII serving in the U.S. Army, was now a proud partner of a clothing store.
The Progression of Zahner’s
From its humble beginning, Zahner’s has always adapted to a changing marketplace. In 1958 a boys and Boy Scout department was added. As the business grew, the floor space tripled in the 1960’s when the former space of Arthur Drug became available. Another 1,000 square feet were added as the expansion of the suit and sports coat area found a new home in the former Bud’s music store. Shoes were added in the 1960’s, and a third brother Walt began his career in Zahner’s Shoe Shop. As the family participation grew, Ed’s son Craig and I, Scott, became the second generation of Zahner’s. In 1977, a major move to the WT Grant building (now Vernon Continuing Education) took place. This allowed for a better flow of merchandising and the addition of a Ladies Department.
As with so many Victorian downtowns, the City of Rockville was suffering a major struggle to compete with other areas of Vernon and Manchester. As Zahner’s management became aware of the planned Buckland Hills Mall in Manchester, new challenges had to be met. The mall in Manchester would further complicate the difficult business environment in Rockville. In 1987 it was determined that a move to the Route 30 Vernon Commons would help the store to face this challenge. The move was a major one but it was accomplished just in time to meet the early 1990’s recession head-on. After a few bumps and struggles, the store was downsized in response to the new realities of the marketplace. Having exhausted its fifteen-year lease at the Vernon Commons a search for available space landed us a spot in the Shops at 30 across from the well-known Rein’s Deli. Our current location was completed and we moved on June 30, 2011.
Outlasting the competition
My earliest recollection of working in the store is cleaning the toilets as an eight-year-old boy – my dad gave me 50 cents. That was in 1962. I do remember the move into the former Arthur Drug (currently Crystal Blueprint) with its well-worn oak floors. It became my home away from home as my mom kept order in the stock room. By the time I was fourteen I was running the Boy Scout Department. From there I ran the Boys Department throughout High School, and during my four years at the Storrs Campus of the University of Connecticut.
As one of the oldest family-operated apparel and haberdasheries in the state, we have been able to outlast most of the better quality men’s stores in Central Connecticut. In 1980, we faced competition from Harmac in East Hartford, Regals in Manchester, Vernon, and Middletown, Richard Stevens in Enfield, Digemmis in Glastonbury, and Hurley’s in Willimantic. These stores are all closed leaving us alone “East of the River” as the last family-run men’s apparel store. Competition has changed as the big boxes and national chains vie for market share
With a BS in Finance from UConn in Storrs, Connecticut came the additional responsibilities of bringing Zahner’s Fine Apparel into the computer age. With the retirement of my father in 1976, my brother Curt and I became equal partners with my Uncle Ed and cousin Craig. In 1985, Curt and I purchased their interest and in 1993 Curt left the business to pursue other interests. Since that time I am thankful for the help of my wife and business partner Nancy. We are thankful for our loyal and growing customer base that has come to rely on us for honest advice, quality merchandise, and exceptional service.