A Fine Man Once Said:

"Part of the 10 million I spent on gambling, part of it on booze, and part of it on women. The rest I spent foolishly."

- George Raft

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Shop Around The Corner: J.J. Hatters

J.J Hat Center: Fedoras A-Plenty

          My father, the original Uptown Dandy, has been wearing eight-piece pie caps (or newsboys or Gatsby's) for as long as I can remember. His charcoal cap was looking a little rough around the edges, so I gave him a gift certificate at Christmas for the J.J. Hat Center on Fifth Avenue at 32nd street. He finally decided that he wanted to take advantage of the certificate, so we dropped into the shop.

The window display at J.J. Hat Center - Borsalino

A close-up of some of the summer hats in the window display.

          The old man has a habit of looking around when we enter men's clothing stores and mumbling something like, "I think this place used to be around the corner," or "I used to work here in high-school." But enough of these comments have been confirmed through so many interesting conversations that none of this surprises me anymore.

          A few years ago, we walked into Paul Stuart and he started telling the salesman how the store was configured in 1960. The gentleman called over another man who appeared to be the elder statesman  of the sales force at Paul Stuart. He proceeded to quiz my father on a variety of questions, including which department he worked in (men's custom made shirts), where it was located (second floor balcony), and who ran the department (I don't recall the name, but the name my father gave passed muster). Having established his credentials, they continued to chat amiably for another 30 minutes.

          The same thing happened when we dropped into Eisenberg & Eisenberg on 17th street near Union Square. I was there to pick up a rental tux (for the wedding party) - I happened to be with my father at the allotted pick-up time, and as I was waiting for the suit to be brought out from the back, my father casually mentions that he used to work for such-and-such Eisenberg in the 10th floor showroom around the corner on Fifth Avenue. The man behind the counter was the nephew of the long-ago Eisenberg who gave my father his first job in a men's tailoring shop. My father actually thanked the nephew for the good turn his uncle did by hiring a Puerto Rican from the Bronx at a time when he was having trouble finding any kind of job downtown, and he went on about what good men both uncles who ran the shop at the time were to him. The current Mr. Eisenberg actually got a bit choked up.

          The point of all this is that (a) the man knows something about clothes, and (b) I don't discount any of his past experiences. Of course, he still insists that he once assisted one of the owners of a small but exclusive men's haberdashery, named Mr. Grey, in waiting on the Duke of Windsor. "Assisted the owner . . ." But then again, who would make up such a thing? Only a dandy, I would think.

          In any event, as my father was looking at the fedoras and summer straw hats, he mentioned to the salesman that he remembered being in a shop like this 40 or 50 years ago, but as he remembered it, that shop was around the corner. To which the salesman replied that J.J. Hatters had only been at the current location for about twenty years. Prior to that, the store actually was located around the corner, from its founding in 1911 to the time that it moved. Needless to say, I was probably more surprised to hear that my father had not been in fact also been employed there at one time or another.

          I'm not sure what kind of experience my father had in the shop 40 years ago, but today's shop is truly a pleasure to visit. The staff is knowledgeable, helpful, patient, and extremely courteous.  My father decided to come back in the winter for wool eight-piece pie caps (although they had plenty), and instead focus on summer straws and fedoras.

The wool caps: maybe next time.

          The Borsalino straw hats are lovely. The weaves look well-done, and the vibrant  ribbon colors really add something to the overall effect of the hat. My father picked out a nice one with a brown/tan ribbon with a yellow diamond pattern running around the center. Hats generally look good on him, so he probably could not make a bad choice anyway - he had the brim up at one point and it looked just as good as when the front was snapped down.

A wall of Borsalino summer hats

A case full of panamas and bow ties - a nice combination.

          You cannot walk around the hat center without coming face to face with the wall of Borsalino fedoras. Most people would have a hard time not picking up one of those beauties, but when the salesman mentioned that they also stocked Stetsons, I knew we were not leaving without a wide-brim fedora or two. Let's just say that Stetson must have made quite an impression on my father in his younger days. He holds them in high regard, and left with a dark grey wide-brim model that looked magnificent.

The Borsalino Fedoras - they look good to me. But someone had to mention Stetson. . .

          At this point, I should also point out that, despite continued reports of the demise of the hat, the shop was pretty crowded for a weekday afternoon. Even more surprisingly, most of the customers were women. From what I could see, they appeared to be purchasing straw Borsalinos in navy blue and other colors. There were men in the store as well, but I would say that most of the purchases were being made by older gentlemen who are just more used to wearing headwear.

My father tries on the Stetson. My mother walked in with her own. . .

          So we ended up leaving with the tan Borsalino (on the counter in the foreground in the image above) and a grey felt Stetson fedora (that you can see on my father's head, also in the image above).  I would recommend J.J. Hat Center to anyone looking to try on a wide variety of styles before making a purchase decision. In my opinion, you can also expect honest professional advice on which style will suit you best.


  1. A fascinating and well written post! Your dad sounds like quite a guy.

    Best Regards,

    Ulrich von B.

  2. Quite a hat store you got there:-) Thanks for sharing:-)

  3. This is some good stuff man!