How Zitomer Became An Upper East Side Staple
Where would New Yorkers be without Sharon Sterheim? For nearly 70 years, Madison Avenue residents have turned to her shop, Zitomer, for their every (and we mean every) need. But you don’t have to be in Manhattan to enjoy the perks. Hamptons residents can also enjoy daily free delivery to their door. The hardworking owner of the Upper East Side’s favorite store tells us about how it all began and some major changes ahead!
How was Zitomer founded?
The original Zitomer was going bankrupt and my late husband, who owned Thriftway Drugs, saw that it was for sale and wanted a presence in the city. He went to Bernie Zitomer and his brother to discuss buying it with the understanding that Bernie would be made a partner. This was in the 1960s. Even though he didn’t have any money, my husband said Bernie could be a partner. The arrangement was that through his salary he would become a partner. He became a 48 percent partner, and my husband owned 52 percent. Bernie retired about 10 years later, and my husband took over and we got married. It started at 500 square feet to 2,500 square feet to 5,000 to 15,000 square feet. After three locations, we bought the building we’re in now, which used to be an art gallery, in 1986.
How did you grow the business?
As my needs grew and I became a mommy, I got into children’s clothing and toys. When the third and fourth floors became available, I decided there was a real need and we had a captive audience for Zittles, which is on the third floor. There was nothing other than FAO Schwarz. I felt, “Build it and they will come,” and it worked. Because of our location and clientele, all the cosmetic companies gravitated toward us. It wasn’t hard for them to say yes. We knew how to run the business. I travel around the world to find products, and they like to be amongst them. I brought Diptyque candles to Zitomer before they opened next door. I had them for 15 years, and they saw the numbers we were doing and decided to have a flagship next door to me. That also happened with NARS Cosmetics.
What’s your customer-service philosophy?
We’re very white glove. We have two doormen. You couldn’t ask for a nicer clientele and for nicer employees. We know everyone’s grandchildren to great grandchildren. We knew some of them since they were babies to them having babies. The longevity of Zitomer makes it what it is. We’ve lasted 71 years! We made it through COVID! That in itself says something.
You’re one of the last mom-and-pop shops in the neighborhood. What do you think when you hear that?
I think, “Thank you, God!” We’re starting construction and people walk in and you see tears coming to their eyes. People ask us if we’re going out of business and we say, “No, no, no! We’re just getting a face-lift!” We’re fine. We’re just temporarily moving everything to the second floor. It would be so detrimental to the neighborhood if we ever closed. It’s more than just a luxury. It’s a necessity. I don’t think they could live without us.
What are some of the changes coming?
We’re not gutting it, but we’re replacing all the fixtures, the ceiling, the floors are going to be tiled instead of carpeted, the walls are all going to get redone. It’s going to be a more Art Deco look, but modern. It’s going to feel old-school apothecary, but with a lot more glam to it!
You must be heavily involved in the planning.
From the beginning to end, but my son happens to have wonderful taste, so he’s been instrumental in the design. My son works with me in the store. When will it be completed? September 1st. We started right after Memorial Day. We felt the safe time to do it is when everyone leaves for the Hamptons, and it will be done when everyone comes back.
You deliver to the Hamptons. How long have you been doing that?
All along, but now we’re trying to get the word out there that we deliver. Most of the stores on Madison Avenue are up for delivering to the Hamptons. Why not? That’s our customer. Just because they move doesn’t mean they have to stop purchasing from us. We can still supply all their needs.
How does it work? You can call or order online.
We have an abundance of employees who have a wonderful rapport with the customers. If they feel more comfortable calling on the phone and asking for suggestions or through the website, we will act as concierge.
How much is it? It’s free of charge.
There’s a minimum charge of $100 and it’s next-day delivery.
Doesn’t get much better than free! What are some of your best-selling products?
Kiehl’s is one of our top lines. We’re honored to be selling Chanel, Shiseido, La-Roche Posay, and Natura Bissé; we have a lot of niche products that people know only we carry. Before COVID, I was flying to Europe once or twice a year to find different products. Most of our hair accessories have our name on them and you can’t find them anywhere else. I take pride in that.
What are some of the new things at Zittles?
We’re one of the few stores carrying [clothing line] Petit Bateau. They had their own presence on Madison but closed it. We also carry Kissy Kissy. We do a good job with the books. Kids are always on their computers now. The parents on the Upper East Side want them to be reading. We believe in educational toys. Arts and crafts is also big at Zittles.
What’s your favorite thing about your job?
I still get excited going in every day. There’s a wonderful vibe in Zitomer. It’s a comfortable setting. It’s not your typical rat race. It’s not like a department store. It’s homey. People feel comfortable. We know our customers’ names. We still have more than 6,000 house charges. People just call up and say, “Put it on my charge.” You could call us anytime of the day and we can be there in 15 minutes. It’s all about service. Do you wish the rest of the world had your standards? Yes and no! I’m happy that we do. It sets us apart. I feel badly that not everyone believes that. The customer comes first.
You have access to every product under the sun. What products do you use?
I use RéVive. I just love the line. I could swim in it. And I use 111SKIN on my lips.
How often are you at the store?
Pre-COVID five days a week. Hopefully after the construction, I’ll be back to five days a week!
The store is incredible. Anything else you want to say?
I try to source out products that nobody else has. I don’t want to compare myself to a five-and-dime, but there isn’t anything you can’t find at my store. All the hotels in the neighborhood, you get Zitomer. We are a concierge service to The Mark, The Carlyle, and The Surrey. Even others that are 10 blocks away, they know if you need something, where else are you going to find it but Zitomer? If you left your socks home while traveling or your cuff links or your underwear. We have it. We’re the go-to place. I think the only thing we don’t sell is buttons. We have what you need.
Why not buttons?
We have sewing kits with buttons in them. If they really need buttons, they’re in the sewing kit!