Business

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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