In Marketplace

Drews Variety Store is still a mart with heart

Back in the day, if you needed a strange combination of things -- like toothpaste, yarn and fish food, for instance -- your best option was to visit a "variety store." And there were lots of them: Ben Franklin, Woolworth, the basement at Winkie's.

Today, with a Wal-Mart lurking around every corner, many variety stores have quietly disappeared, like so many independent drugstores, movie theaters and bookshops. Luckily, a few oldies but goodies have survived the box store invasion, including Drews, at 7505 Harwood Ave. in Wauwatosa.

Jason Gray worked at Drews for 14 years and became the store manager four years ago. He talks about the Drews family, who still lives in Greendale, like they are his family.

"Paul Drews (the current owner) is the son of the original owners, June and Hilbert Drews," he says. "Hilbert founded the business in the 1940s."

For decades, Drews Variety Stores were a local chain of 14 strong, but in the early '70s the family sold all but the Wauwatosa location. Today they also own a hardware store, Drews True Value, on Port Washington Road.

For 30 years, the one remaining Drews has been extremely successful, and Gray credits customer service.

"There's no way to compete with Wal-Mart's prices," he says. "But when you come in the door here, we say hello to you. We'll take you directly to what you want to buy. Our employees in the craft department will talk to you about your projects and give you ideas. That's the difference."

The Drews' craft department is a major part of the business. In the 9,000-square-foot store, 3,500 of it is chock full of art and craft supplies, sewing notions and floral.

The remaining 5,500 square feet are loaded -- even cluttered -- with interesting merchandise, from candles to penny candy; fish tanks to flat wear; soap to school supplies.

"We don't try to do one thing really well, instead, we have a wide selection of unique merchandise," says Gray. "But we're also a place where people can go for everyday things. We get a lot of kids in here the night before a project's due buying poster board."

But the best part about Drews, according to Gray, is the location.

"You can still get an ice cream cone across the street and then come over here to look around," he says. "In a world of Wal-Marts, it's nice to be a place like this. People are always happy to discover us."

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