Jim the Tailor, a Berkeley institution, to shut its doors

Helmut Drewes, who runs the 69-year old store Jim the Tailor, is retiring. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

For almost 70 years, there has been a Jim the Tailor in Berkeley.

No one remembers who the original Jim the Tailor was, but for the last 56 years the title has belonged to a member of the Drewes family.

Henry Drewes adopted the moniker around 1956, when, as a recent German immigrant, he took over the operation of the store, then located at 2480 Bancroft Way. In 1962, his son Helmut joined the business and they moved Jim the Tailor to 2486 Channing Way. Four years later, the Drewes moved a few doors down to 2436 Channing Way, where the store remains today.

But on Friday, after 69 years, a legacy will end. Helmut Drewes is shuttering the store, ready at last to retire to his Hayward garden. The closing ends a business that started in the difficult years of World War II, prospered during the post war boom when men and women still dressed up to go downtown and needed clothes that made them look elegant, and suffered broken windows during the 1960s protests against the Vietnam War and UC Regents.

“I am going to be 78 and I have been working 62+ years in the business, so I think it’s time to call it quits,” said Drewes.

Helmut Drewes moved from Germany to the Bay Area with his family in 1955. He had been a prisoner of war during World War II and had been incarcerated  in Virginia, Louisiana and Wisconsin. Although he was held behind barbed wire, Henry Drewes liked what he saw of the United States and vowed to return some day.

But when the war ended and Henry Drewes returned home to a town near Bremen, his mother begged him not to emigrate, according to Helmut Drewes. So Henry settled down and worked as a tailor.

Life in post-war Germany was difficult. Food was scarce and Helmut and his family suffered from malnutrition, he said. Jobs were hard to come by.

“I was born in Germany and after the war things in Germany were very tough,” said Drewes. “Going to college was out of the question. That’s for people in the upper 10,000. So we learned a trade.”

When he was a young teen, Drewes started formal training as a tailor. Custom tailoring was much more prevalent in the 1950s and Drewes learned to to make  clothing from scratch. He became an apprentice to a tailor and a journeyman after three years, he recalled.

In 1955, Drewes, his parents, his three brothers (including a twin) moved to the Bay Area. His father soon found work at Jim the Tailor, then located on Bancroft Avenue. Helmut Drewes does not remember the true identity of Jim the Tailor, but only remembers that he was an old man.

Drewes worked for a time at Leslie’s, an exclusive men’s shop in downtown Oakland. In 1962, the original Jim the Tailor retired, and Henry Drewes bougt the business. Helmut Drewes joined the business at that point. (His father died in 1972 at the age of 61.)

Jim the Tailor moved to its current location at 2436 Channing Way in 1966. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Drewes has not only seen the transformation of his business, from one that did custom tailoring to one that mostly does alterations, he has seen the transformation of Berkeley from his perch on Channing Way.

Berkeley was a conservative, quiet town in 1962 but it became a violent and unpredictable place in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Students routinely held noon rallies on Sproul Plaza that led to marches on Telegraph Avenue, said Drewes. Sometimes there was looting, and sometimes students threw rocks at the police, who responded by shooting tear gas. On at least one occasion, the store’s windows were smashed. It got to the point where Drewes didn’t want to turn on the television in the morning because he was afraid to find out that his store had been damaged.

“It was lawlessness,” said Drewes. “I felt like a soldier going into combat. You had no idea how things were going to be in this part of town. People were afraid. This was a dramatic change for most of us in Berkeley.”

The streets grew quieter in 1972 after the class that entered in 1968 graduated, said Drewes. Thirty years later, the business district around Telegraph is much calmer, making it a better place to conduct a business.

Drewes has a lot to do before he shuts the doors at the end of business on Friday June 29th. The store is stocked with sewing machines, thread, cloth, an ironing press, and other remains from doing business 60 years in one spot. Drewes said he won’t relax until the store is closed. But once that happens, he is looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Cathe, who is set to retire soon from Lawrence Livermore Lab, and working in his garden.

“I’d like to do something I have never had time to do before – absolutely nothing,” said Drewes.

Locations of Jim the Tailor:

1943 – Jim the Tailor opens at 1630 San Pablo Avenue
1951 – Jim the Tailor moves to 2487 Telegraph Avenue
1953 – Jim the Tailor moves to 2480 Bancroft Way
1962 – Jim the Tailor moves to 2486 Channing Way
1966 – Jim the Tailor moves to 2436 Channing Way
2012 – Jim the Tailor closes permanently

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  • John Holland

    My dad started going to Jim the Tailor when he was at Cal in the late 40’s, and continued to patronize the shop for the rest of his life.

  • Bryan Garcia

    Sad, but not surprising, if you pay even the slightest bit of attention to how students dress these days. Long gone are the days of suits. Now most students look like they just rolled out of bed. For many, they literally did, going to class in their sweat pants without embarrassment.

    I wish him all the best in his retirement.

  • Anonymous

    I thought there was a primordial connection between Bela the (always?) ancient, diminutive, grumpy, slothful Hungarian tailor who later worked out of a room in an old building on Addison St. between Shattuck and Oxford and the original Jim the Tailor.

    Does anyone recall Bela?  He seemed to be more Mel Brooks old-world parody than a real tailor (in his manners), but he was actually an excellent tailor as well.

  • MFox327

    So what? Times and styles change. I don’t see how one’s clothing has any bearing whatsoever on their ability to learn in a classroom.

  • Lhasa7

    I do.

  • joshua a

    How cool is it that, at one time at least, America treated it’s prisoners of war so well that Drewes wanted to move here!

  • Bryan Garcia

    Well, I’d say it at least shows that the person doesn’t take school very seriously. It’s also a sign of prolonged adolescence, in my opinion.

  • Meliflaw

    Did he work for Advanced European Tailoring–or whatever they call themselves; I’ve heard various names–on Addison? I had a gorgeous cashmere coat from Out of the Closet refurbished there for my daughter. (Some students still dress well!) They did a nice job, and claim not to use nasty chemicals when dry cleaning.

  • EricPanzer

    I could scarcely agree more, dear sir! Why, just the other day I witnessed a young woman—no doubt of ill-repute—adorned in a frock which put her ankles in plain view. Such an affront to common decency is a grave insult to the proud character of our fair city. Neither are our young men immune, with many sporting hair so long, wild, and unkempt as to be fitting only of a savage!

    Woe unto us that sweatpants have been so allowed to reduce the hallowed status of our once great university, which has fallen from grace to become the top-ranked public school in the nation. Just think of the heights we could reach, the triumphs we could achieve were our students well-dressed for their eight o’clock Chemistry 3A lecture!

    Go dress, young man! Show the upstanding taxpayers of California that you take your education as seriously as they do!

  • The Sharkey

    While I appreciate the humor, I have to wonder if you’ve noticed the steady decline in standards of America’s education system these last few decades. I’m not saying the two things are related, but I’m sure someone who wanted to could put together a short and poorly-sourced Opinionator piece trying to show a correlation of increasingly lax standards of dress to increasingly declining educational standards.


  • Bryan Garcia

    Right, so you either think it’s okay to dress like a slob anywhere (including at a university, which ought to be a professional setting) or you’re a stuffy, old-fashioned coot. There’s no balance or in-between space.

  • Bryan Garcia

    I think it’s quite likely that there is indeed a correlation. Of course, correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation, but I think there is definitely a relationship.

  • Bryan Garcia

    In response to your update:

    I’m not sure how this became about showing skin. I’m fine with people showing skin. My original comment was pointing out how a lot of people (especially younger people / students) dress like complete slobs these days, even going to class in their pajamas. It’s trashy and tasteless, in my opinion. Has nothing to do with “covering up.”

  • Bryan Garcia

    Eric, I think it would be better if you replied using the actual reply system in place, rather than constantly updating your original post.

  • The Sharkey

    Perhaps everyone should just wear a burka. If the Taliban taught us
    anything, it’s that strict standards of dress do wonders to promote
    education. Not only would students be ready to learn, they’d be fully
    prepared for any after-school beekeeping activities.

    If I was someone who was interested in a career in politics I don’t know if I would make vaguely insulting comments about traditional Muslims for a throw-away joke, but it’s your life to live.Rock on in the free world! [throws devil horns]

  • The Sharkey

    Gotta agree with you on this one, Bryan.

    I’m not sure why Eric keeps updating his post rather than using the “Reply” function to reply to specific posts. It’s dumb, and makes the discussion hard to follow.

  • EricPanzer

    I’m trying to avoid the inevitable rightward drift of comments toward illegibility, but your point is well taken.

  • Bryan Garcia

    Let me just add that I find it offensive and insulting that I am being compared to the Taliban, just for commenting that I think it’s tacky and slobby to wear pajamas to class. The comparison insinuates that I want to impose my views on others and possibly punish them with death if they don’t comply, which I do not want at all.

    So I’m not sure which is tackier: pajamas or your insulting comparison.

  • EricPanzer

    I’m an unabashed atheist, so when it comes to ridiculing religious or cultural traditions that involve the subjugation of women or any other group, I’m equal opportunity. I have no illusions about how electable this renders me at anything beyond the local level, if even that. As of yet, I’m not in the business of sacrificing my principles for power, that’s Congress’s job.

  • Bryan Garcia

    I don’t think that’s a serious danger unless it’s a Sharkey/Bruce Love debate. ;)

  • EricPanzer

    It was a joke, Bryan, more in response to the Sharkey than to you. I apologize that I offended you, even if unintentionally. Though I have clearly done so indelicately, I was trying to make the point that there are clear counterpoints to the idea that standards of dress are strongly tied to educational excellence.

    I must confess I feel a bit foolish that I’ve caused a bit of what was intended as good-humored irony to spin into such a petty argument. I think I’m going to follow the first rule of holes and stop digging now.

  • The Sharkey

    I don’t know if avoiding insulting a major religious group for no particular reason falls under “sacrificing principles for power” so much as “being moderately prudent.” While there may not be a lot of burka-wearing Muslims in Berkeley I know a couple Berkeley residents who wear hijabs and they probably wouldn’t take kindly to jabs like that.

    That said, I am continuously surprised at how many religious people there are in Berkeley. Before moving here I thought of the city as Agnostic-bordering-on-Militant-Atheist, but there seem to be a lot of people here who take the worship of their magical sky wizards very seriously.  :-)

  • Charles_Siegel

     “Fashion is an aesthetic choice, and we’re free to both individually and collectively decide what looks nice.”

    Eric, I have to disagree with this one.  During the last century or more, less formal dress has gone along with less formal behavior generally, so there seem to be deeper social issues involved.  There is both an upside and a downside to this change, and maybe the sweet spot is somewhere between Victorian formality (when men felt informal if they took off their jackets and worked in their vests and shirt-sleeves) and today’s extreme informality (wrinkled tee-shirts and torn jeans suitable for all occasions).

    On the other hand, I have to agree completely with you that:
    “Some people who take school the most seriously aren’t very good
    dressers, and plenty of people who are obsessed with their clothing
    don’t take their education seriously at all.”

    Einstein is the famous example: so busy thinking about physics that he didn’t bother to go to the barber to get his hair cut. 

    I think people on this thread who are complaining about informal dress are thinking about the larger change in manners – not really about education.

  • Anonymous

    You raise many excellent observations in this thoughtful rejoinder.  What I have noticed is that many “disheveled” looks (whether on the punk, grunge or hip hop scene), actually  function as a type of distinctive, strict dress code which requires quite a bit of effort to achieve the requisite or sought after look each day or evening.
    I would argue that a young man with a baseball cap twisted at precisely a certain angle on his head, with an extremely oversized sports jersey, baggy jeans carefully “tailored” so that they are falling down below his bottom, colorful box shorts and certain brands or styles of basketball or athletic shoes is actually in some ways as dress conscious as we presume a Victorian youth might have been about his habiliment.

  • Charles_Siegel

     Good point.  And the two types of dress symbolize very different types of manners, of dealing with other people, of thinking about one’s own life.

  • Guest

    You have hit the nail on the head — a university is a professional setting, for undergraduates as well as for everyone else who works and studies there.  You don’t to show up for 8:00 am section in a navy blazer, or a tweed skirt and pearls, to acknowledge that.  Just something a notch above pajamas would be fine.

  • Dude!

    “it is” prisoners of war??