Small, downtown novelty stores don’t usually last 20 years, but Heebe Jeebe General Store is not your usual small, downtown novelty store.
Engaging the community—particularly children—in creative, fun ways is a top priority for Drew Washer, owner of the Petaluma novelty and gift shop, known locally as Heebe Jeebe (pronounced HEE-bee JEE-bee). Over the years the store has included an art gallery, a photo booth, a Day of the Dead town altar, pop-up Halloween stores, a shop dog named Rheya and the beloved Champion, a mechanical ride-on horse for kids.
“Those things have been the most rewarding parts of the store for me,” Washer says. “It’s kept it fresh and lively.”
Embracing entire families was important to Washer from the store’s inception.
“I wanted it to be active, fun and entertaining, not just shopping,” she says. “I wanted little kids to be able to buy things with their own money and have a place that kids, moms, grandmas and grandpas could all come—even a man could shop here and get a kick out of it so he didn’t have to wait outside.”
When Washer opened the store in 1999, she was a designer in San Francisco for fashion-juggernaut Esprit. She also had her own kids’ clothing line, Kid Poets. Washer later stopped commuting to the city because she wanted to be around for her school-age kids, Phoebe and Henry.
With no experience and a location that, at the time, wasn’t great, she opened Heebe Jeebe in a space half the size of the current store and stocked it with fun toys, gifts, and novelty items. In the past two decades, it’s become a beloved local establishment.
“It was the right time and the right vibe,” Washer says. “I’ve always loved novelty stores—surprises and humor are uplifting.”
Originally called Boomerang and later named the Back House Gallery, the art gallery at the back of the store showcased local art.
“The art gallery was all about community-inspired art,” Washer says. “I knew lots of artists—and I knew lots of artists who were now professionals who didn’t get to do their art as much, so it was a chance for them to do one painting and have it be shown.”
Of course, children were always included, even in the art gallery.
“A child’s art could be right alongside an adult’s art in the gallery,” she says.
At Halloween, for many years, Washer hosted pop-up Halloween stores. Often, she rented an extra location for the month and stocked a huge selection of costumes, wigs—anything you needed for Halloween.
With the advent of the big-box Halloween stores, however, she scaled back to a smaller, dedicated section in Heebe Jeebe. Her inspiration for the Halloween store? The store’s former tenant, The Pet Stop, in addition to selling pets, had a Halloween novelty section. A row of crazy rubber masks on the top shelf was a constant presence, and you could rent costumes or find colored hair spray—a rarity in the ’80s and ’90s.
“I wanted to carry on that lineage,” Washer says, looking up at her own top shelf of crazy rubber masks, carried year-round.
While Halloween is big for Washer, so is Day of the Dead. “Day of the Dead changed my life,” she says. “I did it at first as an extension of the gallery, because I love the culture and art of Mexico and Central America.”
In 2001, Washer and her husband, artist Jack Haye, created an altar in the hallway next to the shop as part of the city’s annual Day of the Dead festivities. People brought photos of their deceased loved ones and wrote messages to them.
“It became an extension of the gallery,” she says. “It was a good place to have an altar because it was accessible to people without the store being open. Every year people would bring new people and bring back previous people and tell me stories about them. I got to know the community in a way that is very personal … and then when I had loss, they did the altar that year.”
Washer’s daughter Phoebe passed away in 2008 and she explains how the altar and the community helped comfort her during that time.
“The altar is for a community of people who have died,” she says. “It’s not just for the people visiting it, it’s also for the people who have passed on. They’re not alone; they are with others—that was comforting.”
The store has always been reciprocal in nature.
“It has really reached out to different aspects of the town that you don’t usually think about with a store,” Washer says. “When Phoebe died, I had customers come in and take over for a while, working for free. I’ve definitely been on the giving and receiving sides.”
Washer began the store on a credit card and her friends pitched in.
“I was naive, and because my budget was small, my mistakes were small,” she says. Her shop is still flexible and responsive today. “It changes with the community.”
After 20 years, Petaluma remains a family town, and her original family-oriented vision still applies, although the products which include humor cards, home decor, gifts, toys, novelty items and more, continue to shift with the current culture.
To celebrate Heebe Jeebe’s big anniversary, every customer will receive a special gift with purchase until they run out.
Washer explains her 20-year success as, “When you stay open to the community, your store becomes a reflection of them.”
Heebe Jeebe General Store is located at 46 Kentucky St., Petaluma, CA. 707.773.3222 facebook.com/HeebeJeebe