The secret to his success in business was that he knew his customers well, those who knew him say.

Joe Zicarelli, former owner of the downtown Anniston business Joe Zic & Company, died Tuesday, a few months after having surgery for a fractured hip. He was 90.

Zic, as his friends called him, loved a good joke, and he loved downtown Anniston, working long after his retirement to bring life back into the area, friends and family said this week.

Zicarelli was born in Birmingham, and first began coming to Anniston in the early 1950’s as a salesman for an office equipment store.

“Downtown was the finest, busiest place in town,” Zicarelli told a Star reporter in 1984. “You could walk up and down Noble Street, and it was just crowded with restaurants, banks and stores. I loved the crowds.”

In 1952, Zicarelli married Georgia Lee Cosby, and the couple moved to Anniston where a year later they opened their own office equipment and supply store.

Zicarelli belonged to a close network of local business owners, who’d meet twice a day, once in the morning and again in the afternoon, for food and conversation, explained Anniston Mayor Vaughn Stewart. Stewart’s father, Sam Stewart Sr., and Zicarelli were close friends.

In the afternoons, the men could most always be found at the former downtown eatery, the Cheese Deli restaurant, Stewart said, where Zicarelli and his friends would take turns cracking jokes on one another.

“The big joke on Joe was how frugal he was, and he was a very picky eater,” Stewart said.

Zicarelli’s daughter and only child, Janet McDanel , of Atlanta,  laughed recalling her father’s thriftiness.

“He never wanted to pay for his meal. He always tried to get someone else to pay,” McDanel said. “His burglar alarm system at his house, to this day, is a bunch of tin cans tied to a rope hung on the door.”

That thrift was also what helped make Zicarelli successful in business, Stewart said, adding that he also knew the importance of customer service. Zicarelli knew what all his clients needed, and delivered his goods free of charge, Stewart said.

Zicarelli first located his business in a store behind Anniston’s federal building before moving it in 1967 to the former offices of Alabama Power Company at 1201 Noble St. He operated from there until he sold the business in 1980 to Fred and Don Kemp, who changed the name to Kemp’s Office Center.

Don Kemp said Friday that he and his brother knew nothing about running an office supply and equipment store before they bought the shop.

“He showed us the ropes and stayed long enough so that we had a pretty good idea how to run the business,” Kemp said, speaking of Zicarelli. “He was an excellent businessman.”

Kemp said that Zicarelli paid attention to the details, and he and his wife set a goal to retire early, ran their business successfully and did so.

David Tankersley worked his entire career with Zicarelli and later with the Kemps until they closed their store in 2002.

“He was a wonderful, warm human being,” Tankersley said. “He always had a smile and great sense of humor. He just liked to tease and cut up with everybody.”

“He was really good to me. I was really lucky. Everything that I accomplished in my 40-something years I owed it to him. He taught me everything I knew,” Tankersley said.

“He was a community contributor too,” Stewart said.

Zicarelli was a member of the American Legion, the Masonic Lodge, United Commercial Travelers, the Camp Committee of the Cottaquilla Council of the Girl Scouts of America and the board of directors of the Northeast Alabama Symphony Orchestra.

He was also an officer in the Anniston Civitan Club, chairman of the retail diversified division of the local Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the chamber's Tourist and Convention Committee and a member of the chamber's Board of Directors.  Zicarelli was also a former chairman of the Christmas parade and he served as chairman of the Publicity Committee of the United Givers Fund, a charitable organization that supported the United Way.

He was named Anniston’s Young Man of the Year in 1957 by the Chamber of Commerce.

In 1984, Zicarelli came close to running for mayor of Anniston, telling a reporter then that he felt “confident he would have won the contest on his pro business platform.” He declined to run, however, due to health problems at the time.

In 1988, Zicarelli and 14 fellow Anniston business owners traveled to Selma to see the progress that city’s Main Street program had made. He wanted the same for Anniston, news reports stated.

In his later years, as the list of Zicarelli’s living friends became smaller and smaller, Stewart said Zicarelli would often sit in the food court at Quintard Mall just to watch people, Stewart said.

“He was just people-oriented. He would take up conversations and could talk on any topic,” Stewart said. “He’ll be sorely missed. He was part of that greatest generation, and he gave Anniston his all.”

Zicarelli’s funeral service will be held July 21 at 2 p.m. at Anniston First United Methodist Church. Burial will follow at Forest Lawn Cemetery. The family will receive visitors at the church at 1 p.m.

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.