A modest and unassuming shop off of Telegraph Avenue, Jim the Tailor is filled with pressed suits, an ironing board and the exuberant personality of the store’s owner and tailor, Helmut Drewes.
Drewes, who has worked at Jim the Tailor for 50 years, will close his shop’s door for the last time on Friday to start his retirement.
Jim the Tailor — named after the original owner who left the shop to Drewes’ father — has long been a fixture in the Telegraph community. Though the store was initially established on Bancroft Avenue, Drewes moved the store to Channing Way in 1962 when he inherited the shop after his father’s death.
Now, with no one to take over the family business, Drewes will retire and Jim the Tailor will close.
“I think not many people can run a business for 50 years,” said Roland Peterson, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District. “The key thing is to build up a regular enduring clientele. I saw (Drewes) had a number of people regularly in his shop, and I know he had a following and a regular clientele.”
Drewes, 78, similarly credits part of his longevity and success to the relationships he was able to build with his customers — he does not ask for phone numbers from customers as a symbol of his trust. However, the personal attentiveness that Drewes and many other small business owners provide to their customers isn’t always enough to compete with larger companies.
“It’s tragic, but we’re losing (Drewes), and we’re losing so many of our small businesses here and across the country,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, whose district includes the Telegraph area.
As a close witness to the transformation of the greater Telegraph area throughout the past five decades, Drewes has a unique perspective on one of the most tumultuous eras in Berkeley history.
After immigrating to Oakland, Calif., from Germany in 1955, Drewes saw a different side to the numerous protests that dominated campus life in the 1960s and 70s as a store owner affected by the Free Speech Movement and the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations.
“There were times we went home around 2:30 or 3 o’clock at night because it was too violent outside the shop, you know, with tear gas and stuff like that,” Drewes said. “Coming in the mornings was sort of similar to having to go into combat, with all the anxiety, because you were always wondering if your shop was still there.”
A self-proclaimed “survivor” of the 1960s and 70s, Drewes saw business improve in the 1980s and 1990s as “peacefulness” returned to Telegraph. However, throughout all the turmoil, he has never had to face the possibility of going out of business.
“I’ve been here 50 years, and I’ve seen business go up and down, but I’ve never worried about not having enough business,” Drewes said. “If you satisfy your customers, the word will spread.”
This week, Drewes said he is moving toward his retirement calmly and happily, tying up loose ends at Jim the Tailor without taking on any new work. His building has been sold, but he doesn’t know to whom and he does not care.
When asked how he plans to spend his retirement, Drewes said he wants to relax by spending winters in Mexico with his wife and visiting his daughters as often as he can.
“I’ve never had any time to develop any hobbies,” he said as he shrugged and smiled. “I just want to watch the world go by. In two years, I’m going to be 80, so I think it’s time for me to look at the other side.”
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