Jim Zorn Discusses B.N. Genius
Remember a couple weeks ago when I wrote about B.N. Genius, the now-defunct chain of Pacific Northwest gadget stores Jim Zorn used to work for? The chain that sold "hundreds of unusual products, from decorative neon clocks and Italian espresso machines to solar-powered Walkmans, waterproof stereos and a robot waiter." Well, I finally asked Zorn about his involvement.
"Oh, man," he said. "You're digging way, way deep."
The brief summary: a Seattle-area runner and small businessman who was friends with Zorn and Steve Largent approached them with the idea of a Sharper Image knockoff, with "a little bit of a different niche, a different way to present the merchandise and things like that," Zorn said. In the ensuing offseason, the Seahawks duo invested some money, and then Zorn became a buyer, traveling to electronics and gift shows in Chicago and Vegas, "looking for the unique quality gadget," as he put it.
"Because I'm interested in product, I really am," he told me. "I'm interested in gadgets and things like that....You know, this was when the nose trimmer first came out. This was when they started making plastic couplings for your sprinkler systems. You name it. That's what B.N. Genius was all about."
He pronounced it a lot more like "Be Ingenious" than the letters would suggest, for the record. I asked him whether he had any favorite gadgets from back in the day, and he mentioned neither decorative neon clocks nor robot waiters. Instead, he mentioned fischertechnik toys.
"Absolutely," he said. "It's a Germany company, they make precision building blocks, much like Lego, ok? Make 'em out of the same type of plastic or resin, but they used to have this line of these different fischertechnik pneumatic little trucks. Like, they had a crane, they had a 'dozer, they had a little dune buggy. Really cool stuff. They were more toys, but precision toys, toys that would cost $100 or more just to build. And you'd build it and you'd go, 'Wow! Pretty cool.' Now they stopped that line, but I saved a few of those things."
Let's take a pause here to ask a few Redskins players whether their coach's past as a traveling retail buyer of high-quality unique gadgets struck them as surprising.
"I don't know, I mean, our old head coach was into NASCAR," Todd Yoder pointed out.
"I'm not surprised," Pete Kendall said. "Jim doesn't seem like the type of guy who's stuck by convention. So I can see him being a gadget guy, and I don't necessarily mean that in a derogatory sense. But I know some people at 55 years old, they don't even want to mess with the DVD player, and how old's that technology, do you know what I mean? Some people just get set in their ways and whatever it is they're used to. But Jim doesn't strike me as that type of guy."
Indeed, Zorn said he still likes to browse the gadget stores to see what's new and different, but he concentrates more on the functional stuff nowadays, which he attributed to his advancing age: the latest cell phones, the most modern GPS doodads, trying to figure how why they're set up the way they are, what they do, how they work. B.N. Genius, he said in ending the story, tried to expand too fast and went under, years before The Sharper Image suffered a similar fate.
"I wasn't a business entrepreneur, I was more of a gadget entrepreneur," he explained. "And so I was not a part of the business [oversight]. And it turns out neither were the guys that needed to be."
We finished talking about German pneumatic toy dune buggies and the advent of nose trimmers, and I told Zorn I was worried I was running out of quirky tales from his past.
"Oh, there's more," he assured me. "But I'm gonna let you discover all that. I'm not gonna tell you."
He paused and gave a clue.
"There's an interesting side of me, too, that has to do with cast-metal sculpting," he noted. "So go into that area. That's a cool area."
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