By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
For the better part of 14 years, Petalumans under 65 (pounds, that is) have been taken for a ride by Champion, and loved every minute of it.
Champion, in case you don’t know, is the mechanical horse outside Heebe Jeebe, Petaluma’s emporium of the fun, the zany and the things you didn’t know you wanted but can’t live without.
For two bits, kids can gallop on the mighty steed down Kentucky Street, in their imaginations at least. And kids of any age can enter the sacred portals of 46 Kentucky and wander around.
Here’s a peek at what they might pick up. A Take-Along Pocket Box, Just Add Stuff, for $8.98. That heart-shaped gelatin mold ($5.98) isn’t your tame Valentine-shaped heart, it looks like the real chest ticker. Or perhaps you’d like to peer at life through beer stein sunglasses ($12.98), wear a bowling pin hat ($14.98), smoke candy cigarettes ($1.50) or flash a burger key ring that burps on cue ($6.98).
And, if nothing else, you’ll want to spend $4 and have your picture taken in an old-fashioned black-and-white photo booth.
All this joy is the brainchild of Drew Washer who, as a newly divorced mom, picked Petaluma as “a good place to raise my children.” She’d been in the fashion industry, traveled a lot and wanted to change that, spend time with her son, Henry, and daughter, Phoebe.
“I wanted to do something in town. I was walking by one day and saw this space was open,” Washer, 59, says. “I decided I would figure out how to run a retail store. It all came out of my need to be in the community day to day, to be close to the kids.”
So she maxed out a couple of credit cards, “brought stuff from home, friends brought stuff and we filled the shelves to make it look full.”
What it was, she says, was “exciting, from Day One.”
The store’s eclectic concept came after studying what stores had come and gone. “I didn’t have a lot of money, couldn’t buy expensive things. But I was always drawn to art and novelties, things that were fun and unusual. I wanted a happy place and I didn’t want to cater to just mothers, or just children, but a place where the whole family could come in, shop, be entertained and enjoy the experience.”
Because Heebe Jeebe is a variety store, Washer explains, she could respond to the changing needs of downtown and keep the merchandise fresh and interesting. That elastic approach has been helpful for making her a downtown mainstay for almost 14 years. “Flexibility has been my best friend.” However, she adds, some of the merchandise for sale today has been a mainstay since the store opened.
Tucked away in the northeast corner is Boomerang Gallery, a tiny art gallery that’s hosted a wide selection of art and artists, particularly young local artists. Washer’s husband, Jack Haye, worked for George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic, so she had access to a stable of professional Bay Area artists. With an eye for juxtaposition, she was able to delight by pairing and contrasting artists, “two people whose art you wouldn’t expect to see together, but doing so presents another aspect of both of them.”
The store and gallery, she says, “formed a niche in the community that I felt was sophisticated, yet down-to-earth and community-minded.”
Champion the horse, Washer says, has been one of the greatest joys. She smiles in delight as she describes “little kids, quarter clutched in their hand, running down the street yelling ‘Champion!’”
With a new Target opening in Petaluma, Washer says people have asked if it would hurt business.
“To compare us,” she says, “well, on one hand, it’s flattering to be compared to a huge corporation but the biggest difference is, I started this store in the community because I wanted to be in the community.”
Where did the store’s name originate? “It’s a jazz term from the 1930s,” Washer explains, “a great song sung by Louis Armstrong, among others.” But, more personally, it’s a jazzy blend of her children’s names.
She muses that Heebe Jeebe isn’t “just a gift store, but an energized place, a gathering place that’s involved with the community.”
And, she says, one thrill is to think Heebe Jeebe will be part of the memories of the Petaluma kids who move away. She pictures “some girl in New York City, 20 years from now, saying to a boy, ‘Oh, I’m from Petaluma, too. Remember that old horse, Champion?’ and the boy says, ‘Yeah, I used to ride him too.’”