Mike Zabian cuts a striking figure as he strolls in front of the Main Street building that bears his name. Wearing dark gray slacks and an orange wool sweater-vest, the retired haberdasher seems fit and youthful as he surveys the sidewalk, smiling at people passing by.
Zabian’s Men’s Clothing sits side by side with Zabian’s Fine Jewelry at the heart of downtown Lee.
“I fell in love with this building,” Zabian said, turning to the stately 19th-century structure at 15-19 Main St., which was constructed (inside and out) using Lee’s famous marble.
For years, as he commuted past the store to his various jobs, he dreamed of one day owning the place. Back then Zabian was also a customer of the mens’ shop that inhabited the ground floor.
“You can’t build this anymore,” he said. “Having this place was like a dream. You know?”
Coming to America
It’s been nearly 50 years since Zabian left his home in the village of Mdoukha, Lebanon, for a new life in America. With little more in his pocket than a single $20 bill and an education, Zabian found himself in Western Massachusetts, married, and on his way to creating a family business that has become part of the fabric of the Berkshires community.
He was 16 years old.
“My wife was already in America. She brought me over,” Zabian said, laughing. “I was 16 when I got married. I needed to have my father sign for me, because I wasn’t of legal age.”
Zabian’s wife, Mary, came from the same village in Lebanon but had come to America in the early 1960s. The two met when she returned to Mdoukha for a vacation from her work in Springfield.
For years, they both worked long hours at menial jobs. Neither were discouraged by setbacks, they said. Hardship only made them work harder.
‘It’s not like working for a paycheck. It’s working for a livelihood. — Mohamed Zabian’
“I applied for a job at the Smith & Wesson factory in Springfield when I was 18,” he said. “They told me they’d call in a couple of weeks, and when they called they said they had no job for me.
“I just went to the factory and told them someone had called me for a job. They told me to go get the physical, and I got the job.”
Together the Zabians had six children, and over the years they have nurtured almost as many businesses.
“Our first business was a package store and nursery in East Lee,” Zabian said.
He bought that business in the late 1960s and expanded to include flowers, which was a hobby. By the late 1970s he’d managed to buy the building on Main Street and the clothing store, and by the mid-1970s he’d opened a fine jewelry shop. For a time, all of the businesses ran simultaneously.
He worked around the clock.
“When you have six kids, you work day and night,” said Zabian, who believes hard work and honesty are the most important aspects of success. “Everything else is just common sense. You have to learn from your mistakes, and I thank God for them. There is no human being that doesn’t make mistakes.”
Growing a family business
His son, Mohamed, who now owns Zabian’s Fine Jewelry, said that for him, there was no question about going into the family business, even though his parents wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer.
“I was born into it. I was 8 years old, helping to run the register,” he said. “It’s not like working for a paycheck; it’s working for a livelihood. I watched my parents work 16-hour days, every day. We had work to do when we came home from school, and it was a wake-up call and a lesson that most people don’t understand.
“Mom would open the (package) store at 6 a.m. and close it at 10 p.m. Dad would drive for produce and then stock the store. I saw that, and it taught me a lot.
“No one wants to work. You have to work. You have to support your family. But it’s not as difficult if you truly love what you do,” he said. “If you love what you do, it’s not a problem.”
His older brother, Ali, who now runs the menswear shop, had a similar sense of strong foundations.
“All of us started the same way,” said Ali Zabian. “We worked cleaning the building. We cleaned bathrooms, washed windows, vacuumed floors. I think my dad would have liked me to go into law or medicine, but I went to business school.”
When he graduated, Ali Zabian bought a business of his own, a dry cleaning establishment, from Paul Laramee. And though business was good, the nature of it was intense.
‘We see teenagers who come for their first suits. Their first interview. College. Prom. I see how they go from jeans and tee to shirt and tie.’ — Ali Zabian
“I jumped in with both feet, and it was a great business — still is — but it just required so many people to run it properly,” he said. “Paul Laramee had put a lot of work into it, and I owed it to his name to make sure it was in good hands.”
He shopped for buyers and found a young Korean family who had the right connections to make it work.
Once he’d handed over the staff, he returned to the fold.
“I really could appreciate this work. I could really see how it made a difference,” Ali said, praising the store he grew up in. “We see teenagers who come for their first suits. Their first interview. College. Prom. I see how they go from jeans and tee to shirt and tie. I help dress them. They know me, and they trust me. They come here, and they trust us. There is real joy and pride in that.”
‘They know me, and they trust me. They come here, and they trust us. There is real joy and pride in that.’ — Ali Zabian