Otto Leuschel’s Old-Fashioned Germantown Variety Store
Some people boast of having lived in an area when it “hit,” like Soho in the ’70s, or, more locally, Great Barrington, when Smithsonian named it the best small town in America. Next on the “hit” list: Germantown, if Otto Leuschel has his way; on June 28 he opened Germantown Variety across the street from his foodie mecca, Otto’s Market, and the community is abuzz.
And rightfully so. The mastermind behind the re-making of Germantown’s Main Street is a former Whole Foods Market executive who had a midlife crisis and, in the process, changed a town. Nothing Leuschel does is haphazard or ill-conceived, from the hours he spends straightening labels so they all face perfectly forward to arranging both stores like movie sets.
Like Otto’s Market, Germantown Variety boasts mind-bogglingly well-curated aisles. The new store is stocked with high-quality goods ranging from body-care (like FACE Stockholm and Luxo Banho soaps) and wellness products to housewares (98% are made in the USA), plus stationery (Cranes, of course) and office supplies. There’s a large selection of hardware (one-third of the store), books on topical subjects such as bee-keeping and canning, hard-to-find magazines, and notions and potions. Plus there’s penny candy, measured out in an old-fashioned scale.
Leuschel is known for his boundless enthusiasm; he’s always “on,” like a Christmas morning kind of “on.” He is a super-fan of, well, everything he stocks, and can enthusiastically tell the story of how each item came to be in his new shop.
Take, for example, the humble J.R. Watkins Household Cleaner that you’ll find in Germantown Variety. Leuschel recalls growing up in Portland, Oregon, when Bill Porter, the J.R. Watkins salesman, who had cerebral palsy, came around, “He was the #1 Watkins salesman and he has stuck with me. William H. Macy played him in a movie and I knew when I had the store idea I had to carry this line and carry on what the salesman did.”
Germantown Variety manages to be both playful and selective, but never precious or snobby. It’s stocked with well made items; each has been vetted and passed a rigorous test to earn its spot on Leuschel’s enthrallingly arranged shelves. Leushcel explains that he focused on products that are made in the USA or in countries with progressive politics and non-exploitative manufacturing practices. “I am crazed about it,” he says. “My goal is to stock only America’s nearest and best allies, countries that we are good trading partners with.”
Leuschel doesn’t view himself as competing with the big box stores; his vision is to help revive Main Street, and give Germantown residents the ability to stay in town and keep their money in their own back yard. Shopping at Germantown Variety has the added benefit of the opportunity to encounter the store’s resident felines, Hansel and Gretel.
The store’s location, 212 Main Street, has a storied past. It has housed a bra factory, Van Vliet’s Drug Store, and a luncheonette, with many lives in between. In designing his new store, Leushcel made good use of antique fixtures, treasures found in years of shopping expeditions to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. On his last trip, he filled an 18-foot U-Haul with items for the variety store. With the help of his sister, Molly, he has made Germantown Variety feel like it’s always been here; the ambience is spot on, from the deep gravel gray walls, to the not-so-perfect well-worn hardwood floors, to the penny candy.
Every inch of space is used, except for a few neatly marked shelves with signage asking customers for their help in filling them. They’re encouraged to send in suggestions and help shape the store based on need. “I can only take it so far,” Leuschel says. “I need my customers to tell me what to do next.” – Dale Stewart
212 Main Street, Germantown, NY
Open Monday-Saturday: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Sunday: 9 a.m.-3 p.m.