Bernie Dreier, the immediately likable, 85-year-old owner of Dreier's Sporting Goods in Watchung, N.J., isn't getting much work done lately. In his dwindling days in business, he's in charge of selling off more than $1 million worth of inventory, but he can't go 10 seconds without a downhearted customer making like Scheherazade and regaling him with a story. "I bought my first set of cleats from your dad," said a gray-templed man with a mirthless laugh. "We're sure going to miss you," lamented a middle-aged woman. "My father, my brothers and my sons all got their first fishing poles from Dreier's."
Founded in 1868 by Bernie's grandfather Samuel, Dreier's is believed to be the oldest sporting goods store in the U.S. Dreier's weathered the Great Depression, survived a fire in the 1970s and, more recently, withstood the poaching of customers by superstores such as Modell's and the Sports Authority. But last year Federal Realty, which manages the Blue Star Shopping Center in Watchung, decided not to renew Dreier's lease, hoping instead to charter the space to a national "anchor store."
What makes Dreier's closing particularly bittersweet is that business has never been better. The 11,000-square-foot store that is now festooned with garish signs reading GOING OUT OF BUSINESS and ALL FIXTURES FOR SALE carried everything from artificial catfish bait to wrestling singlets to baseball gloves. "For ethical reasons, I stopped selling guns and ammo [in 1972], and I didn't sell those $180 sneakers," says Dreier with palpable pride. "But other than that, we tried to provide our customers with everything they could need."
Dreier's furnished generations of kids with their Little League uniforms and Pop Warner helmets; it donated truckloads of equipment to children displaced by the Newark riots of 1967 and to community groups that were short of cash; and it sponsored scores of youth athletic teams in the area. Bobby Thomson, the New York Giants hero, still comes by at least once a week, often just to chat. Baltimore Orioles outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds worked at Dreier's while he was in high school. Milt Campbell, the 1956 Olympic decathlon champion, wore a warmup outfit from Dreier's at the Melbourne Games.
Although Dreier's exudes a distinct Capra-esque bonhomie, there is no Hollywood ending. Bernie has scoured Watchung for a suitable site to move to, but he has found nothing. He's averse to running a mail-order business because he knows he'll miss interacting with his customers, and he's adamantly opposed to bulldozing his way into a neighboring town. "I'd never do that," he says. "I've never been greedy, and I'm not going to go into another community and take business from other stores already there."
So Aug. 29 wall mark Bernie's last day at the store where he has worked since Woodrow Wilson's administration, when he helped his father inflate footballs and basketballs. After his brother Henry died in 1952, Bernie took over Dreier's ownership. "I'm not bitter, but I never thought it would end like this," he says, surveying the clearance racks. "I guess it's like being on a dynasty sports team. Even while you're enjoying the ride, you know it can't go on forever."