Zelf Made Man

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.  I have only the vaguest memories of Xelphin Dugal (Zelf) and Rene Schwartz (Chickadee) and their store, Zelf Tool and Die Works at 44 Greene Street, so I am going to rely on the memories of others to help me tell the story of this most memorable store that was an integral part of the SoHo landscape.

From the August 16, 1971 issue of New York Magazine (page 36):

Crammed into the first floor of his 1830s cast-iron-front building are a multitude of lathes, planers, pantograph engravers, band saws, welders—even a 40-ton power press.  Not only are these for rent by the hour but, and this is what makes Zelf’s really unusual, even if you’re a complete novice you can use them.  He will teach you on an individual basis (reasonable hourly charges by arrangement).  Half a day with a welding torch ($2 per hour for cutting, $3 for burning, acetylene and oxygen supplied) has convinced several sculptors to switch from marble to steel.

Typical on-location rentals are: drill press 75 cents/hour, Kalamazoo band saw $1.25/hour, New Bridgeport vertical miller $2.25/hour, and Logan engine lathe $1/hour.  In a spirit of blue-collar revivalism, you punch in on a Calculagraph and take your place next to the other craftsmen working on such projects as a granite guitar or an about-to-be-patented vinyl waterbed mattress sealer.

Zelf’s motto is “The fast are not held back.  The slow are not rushed.”  So work away, ask for help when you need it, and enjoy.  Hours: Mon.-Sat. 9-6.

A former customer recalls:

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 tattooed numbers on her arm typical of concentration camp survivors and the worst red wig imaginable. (D.K.)

Regarding Zelf’s inner life:

I sanded a number of East and Middle Village floors in the 70s and got to be reasonably well known at the shop.  I sublet a series of apartments through a little agency on the East Side, and the owner of that agency put me on to Zelf.  The most unique story that I can contribute came from my later contacts, sometime in the late 70s. I was a psychology undergrad at NYU at the time, and somehow that came up when Zelf and I were talking.  He showed an interest in the subject of dreams, and as we chatted he shared something I have always cherished in memory: he told me his dreams.  He didn’t ask me for a dream interpretation (I’m not sure how I would have responded) but he rather just wanted to share an experience that afforded him  great personal pleasure.  Zelf explained that he dreamed nightly of his companionship with two lionesses named Alpha and Beta.  They would join him as he drifted off to sleep and then accompany him through the night, and he would roam freely with them through brush and wilderness.  He spoke of them with great fondness and reverence.  I felt very privileged that he shared so personal a matter with me, and this touching inward adventure somehow seemed the perfect compliment to the vaudevillian sideshow that was Zelf’s. (P.K.)

Others also remember Zelf and Chickadee’s eccentricities:

On the wall behind Chickadees desk was a sign saying that in a car, he noticed/honked for blondes and brunettes, but he backed up for redheads.  My recollection of Zelf was that he didn’t actually die the graying temples/sideburns on his head, but just applied some kind of dye on the skin below those graying hairs.  Definitely a one-of-a-kind NY businessman.  (M.L.)

I also do remember that Mr. Zelf (until yesterday, I thought Zelf was his last name) was quite polite and patient to us, and that Chickadee was professionally competent, when we had time to get our eyes off her hair. Of course, Mr. Zelf had that weird combover now modified and made famous by Donald Trump. (S.S.)

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. (C.E.)

What happened after Zelf passed away:

After Zelf died, the family did not know what to do with the business. A niece (I believe a daughter of Mr Dugal’s sister, but a redhead for sure) stepped in and ran the business for years at Greene Street. She moved the business to Tribeca in the late nineties. It survived there until 2002 or 2003. I rented all kinds of tools from him and then later from her. She did her best to bring some professionalism to the business (buying new tools, expanding the selection and improving maintenance) but the floor-sander demonstration remained the main attraction. “Move the sander forward and slowly lower the drum as if landing an airplane.” I think I must have earned my wings along the way. (Chris)

Boy, what I would give for a photo of Zelf and Chickadee!  If anyone has one, PLEASE send it along and I will post it.  The only memory I have myself of Zelf’s is going in there with my dad, a carpenter, when I was little, and being kind of scared.  It’s more of a sensory memory of “what in the world is going on here?” and “maybe I shouldn’t be here!”  It was no place for a kid to be hanging out. Power tools, bad hair, burning metal, vegan food.   Yuck.

Thanks to everyone who wrote in to share memories of a most memorable SoHo business!

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15 Responses to “Zelf Made Man”

  1. Carol Eckman Says:

    fabulous compilation of Zelfness. hope someone has a photo. the family?

  2. Bobby Gorman Says:

    Out of the military I moved into the East Village in ’71. I’m in the same apartment still and still looking at the wounded floors that I made beautiful thanks to a rental from Zelf. I walked that monstrously heavy machine from Soho to here near St Mark’s Place.
    Yes, Zelf, he with the most obvious wig in NYC was the go-to guy for we low budget downtowners. He was the alternative to Manhattan Flooring uptown on 3rd Ave where we bought our Fabulon-the stuff that coats my floor.
    Zelf was a big man who looked to be of considerable strength. He wore a long work apron full of dust from the mandatory lessons he gave his equipment renters. As I recall he had a drawl so I doubt he was from these parts. Chickadee had her hair colored red, She was slight of build and very pale. She sat at the desk in the office portion of the same big room that housed the machines and hosted the lessons. She would be lunching on some unusual concoction that looked inedible. Some extreme dietary thing I reckoned. I recall her being very friendly if unusual.
    I was so glad to have read here about Zelf. He is definitely a piece of Soho history, and a big reason for the successes of the do-it-yourself EV / Soho apartment renovators.

  3. Jerry Dugal Says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Brought back many memories of my Uncle Zelf & Renee.

  4. Aunt Snow Says:

    In 1976 and 1977 I sanded floors in two West Village apartments and one apartment on Houston Street. It’s hard to believe I’d put in so much effort to make temporary living spaces beautiful, but it was so important to me at the time! I know I must have used Zelf’s sanders, but I didn’t write this down in my journals. Thanks for bringing back the details and the memories!

    • Bobby Gorman Says:

      I also would like to see those pix and that complete article. If its permissable and you have the know how to do it, please post it here.

  5. axel reinert Says:

    The May 1967 issue of Mechanix Illustrated has a nice article about Zelfs. It was written by John Capotosto and has 5 nice pictures and a wealth of information about the customers who patronised his business, the type of tools you could rent and the prices that were charged. There are also some interesting stories on of which I’ll quote here:
    He (Zelf) once found himself coaching a group of teen-agers who seemed eager to work on the machines, especially the small lathes and drill presses. Zelf was vaguely uneasy about the group. They didn’t seem the hobbyist type.
    “They turned out to be a street gang and their project was zip guns,” says Zelf. “I got rid of that bunch fast and now I choose my clients a little more carefully.”

  6. Carol Eckman Says:

    Please can you post the rest of the article and the photos?

  7. Paul Karlan Says:

    Before greene st., Zelf had his shop on the upper west side, a little above 57th st., west of Broadway. I used to go down to greene st. to rent, by the hour, his hydraulic surface grinder. i remember zelf sitting at his desk with many bottles of, i assume, vitamin pills before him. i also remember rene. I remember seeing the inventors and others in their cubicles, that surrounded the shop, working away. I believe it’s also interesting to note that the buildings down there, around canal st., were cast iron buildings, made before steel. They were heavy duty industrial buildings with cast iron columns supporting heavy duty wood planks. I don’t know if they are still there. .

  8. SoHo Memory Quiz Answers Part III | The SoHo Memory Project Says:

    […] Read my post about Zelf (Zelf Made Man) here. […]

  9. Kenneth Young Says:

    I moved to NYC in 1978 into a small one bedroom walk up on Carmine Street. Getting to know the city, I enjoyed the discovery of unusual local supply stores that were often located in their own small neighborhoods. Smaller than the garment district or the flower district, they might only have dominated the street level of half a block. I recall Pieiffer Castors, Canal St. Rubber, and Canal St. Plastics, and myriad electronics stores with bins filled with leftover bits and pieces that teased the brain with the possibilities they offered. Then there was Zelf. Zelf was so utterly stand alone, a quintessential New Yorker of the old school. The store was a Dickensian throw-back of industrial equipment: drill presses, lathes, work benches, floor sanders and edgers. Standing over six foot in dusty dungarees and a tilting toupee, his presence was eccentric, commanding, and welcoming. As a clueless young immigrant I was taught by Mr. Zelph the nuances required to use the heavy floor sanding machines and powerful edgers, how to gently drop the drum to the floor, the steady movement, to follow the wood grain, and the correct grades of paper for an excellent finish. Chickadee sat behind the desk looking somewhat sickly, pale, and with extraordinary red hair. She coughed a lot, always politely into a handkerchief and deferred to Zelf for most of the questions that were asked her. I was surprised by Chickadees number tattoo. Horrified actually, then strangely honored to be in their presence. Chaickadee was a survivor, in the most rigorous definition of the word, and Zelf cared for her. I have great reverence for the memory of Zelf and Chikadee. I used the shop often and found myself watching as new customers reacted to the couple. This was not anything like the sanitized corporate world that encases NYC now. Mr. Zelf was generous with his time, offered reasonable prices and stocked well maintained, if old, equipment. He and Chikadee served the local neighborhood well.

  10. P.Fora Says:

    See also page 112 in the November 1944 issue of Popular Mechanics for a blurb with photographs. In archive.org is a publicly available copy.

  11. Joe Goodbread Says:

    Thanks for the memories. I used to rent one of those Bridgeport mills to work on a vacuum printing easel for my darkroom. There was a guy there working on a machine for combing out hair for wigs. He worked verrry slowly and meditatively. I learned a great deal about the Tao of invention just by watching him do almost nothing.

    Joe Goodbread

  12. Hoppy Junior Says:

    Like many here I used to rent from Mr. Zelf, then later from his niece, who was absolutely lovely. The last time that I rented tools and a sander was 1998. Through the years I sanded 3 floors and rented an incredible array of costly tools. The Greene Street store was vast and magical.

    At that time I left and said I would see her next time. She said that there might not be another next time because they were going to lose their lease. I was shocked because I thought they owned the building.

    She told me that Mr. Zelf had been offered the building in ’60’s for $56,000 and turned it down, saying that he was in the tool rental business, not the real estate business.

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