Calling All Do-It-You-Zelfers

I am posting today to ask for your help.  I have been wanting to do a post for so long on Zelf, the floor sanding equipment rental place in SoHo that EVERYONE used when renovating their lofts, but I have only the vaguest memories of Xelphin Dugal (Zelf) and Rene Schwartz (Chickadee) and their store.  If any of you have memories to share, about the mandatory 20-minute tutorials before being allowed to take a machine or about the eccentric hair-obsessed couple who rented them, please write in a comment or email me at

A history of 1970’s SoHo would not be complete without a section about Zelf, the institution that enabled all of us to walk barefoot in our homes and avoid splinters, and I thought if we all pooled out memories, we could come up with a collective post.  I look forward to hearing from you!

8 Responses to “Calling All Do-It-You-Zelfers”

  1. david karlin Says:

    Numerous times in 1970″s I rented sanders, edgers, buffers and an occasional hammer-drill from zelf tool on greene. I used my bank savings account passbook, instead of cash, for my deposit, which zelf appreciated because he had large amounts of hidden cash
    and as a repeat customer I could skip the tutorial although I saw
    many given to the client ahead of me. He wore a hole into his floor
    repeating his 3-second sanding demo. His rates were the lowest
    because he kept patching and maintaining the machines himself.
    The machine shop also rented time on the tools to inventors and
    machinists making prototypes and short production runs. He and
    Chickadee sat at a desk in the filth and dust, eating homemade vegan snacks from plastic bags. He told me that they slept in a bed he made with the head-end a foot lower than the foot end.
    He had peculiar health theories and did not like “double-insulated”
    electric wiring (that 3rd prong on plug) even though I complained
    of electric shocks from using the edger near radiators. Chickadee
    had tatooed numbers on her arm typical of concentration camp
    survivors and the worst red wig imaginable. I saw them once shopping at a produce store on the lower east side.

  2. Carol Eckman Says:

    If Chickadee had numbers on her arm, chances are she was in
    Auschwitz, the only camp that regularly tattooed arms. do you think Xelphin could have been a survivor too?

    I was there when Xelphin finished his brown bag lunch, and opened a drawer in his desk, which contained 100 or more identical neatly folded used bags. I rented from them in 1976.

  3. Peter Von Korff Says:

    I’d love to share my memories of Zelf. Looking forward to your reply.

  4. curlynostrill Says:

    Don’t forget about the plethora of empty and half gone kitty food cans littering the front desk area!

  5. Tim Says:

    I encountered Zelf and Chickadee in 1983 when I rented a sander while working on the movie CHUD. We built a loft apartment set in a much larger loft at 462 Broadway and naturally had to sand the floor. I’d forgotten about the mandatory sanding lesson. My recollection is that Zelf told me he moved to New York during the Great Depression from elsewhere in the US. Chickadee wore a labcoat. When she answered the phone, she listened patiently. Then always said, “You’ll have to speak to Mr. Zelf,” since she didn’t seem to know anything technical about the equipment. And even though Zelf wasn’t his last name, I remember Chickadee referring to Zelf as Mr. Zelf.

  6. alaspooryorick Says:

    I still have a giant roll of steel wool from Zelf (I think). Anyone else remember purchasing this?

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