In 1911, when everyone wore a hat, there were 48 hat stores in New York City. One of the newest arrivals was Young's Stetson Hats, which had just opened on Herald Square. Named after one of the larger hat makers of the time, the store mainly sold, as you might expect, Stetson hats.
Today, 103 years later, 47 of those hat stores have closed their doors, leaving Young's, now J.J. Hat Center (it acquired its new name in the 1960s) as the sole survivor carrying on a great tradition. Sure, there are still plenty offine hat stores in New York City—Hats By Bunn in Harlem and Cha-Cha's House of Ill Repute on Jay Street, to name just two. But none of them can match J.J.'s sweep of history and class.
The Third Generation Sells It Off
A blog entry on the Hat Center's web site, written by Numidas Prasarn, quotes current owner Aida O'Toole, who bought the store in 1996:
"It's kind of a kooky business," she laughs. "J.J. Hat Center has been in many families. Usually it's the third generation that sells it off. The father gives it to the son, and the son says, 'That's enough.' There's never a third generation." Currently, Aida and her family are on generation two, since her son Sean started two satellite stores, Pork Pie Hatters, in Brooklyn and Manhattan's lower east side, and has been taking a role in the operation of the business. In fact, at least one member of the O'Toole family has worked at J.J. since 1981.
"My father got his first job in 1981," Sean explains. "It was in an investment bank, and according to his story he quit after the first day. But he was embarrassed to go home without a job, so he took the first one he could find, which was selling hats at J.J. Hat Center. He worked there for a couple of years, became the manager, and eventually became national sales director for Stetson Hats, which was the biggest hat company in the world at the time. Two years later my mom went to work at J.J. part-time."
Thanks to the O'Tooles, J.J. Hat Center has become one of the most renowned hat shops in the world. With three stores in New York City, it gets world-wide exposure thanks to credits in movies, TV shows and Broadway musicals; The Blacklist recently shot part of an episode in the store. It sells a huge assortment of high-end hats and caps, and its staff includes some of the most knowledgeable hat people in the industry. "We provide hands-on service," says Sean, "expert advice, and everything from fedoras, newsboy caps, homburgs, and berets to women's hats, and much more."
Cancel the Dress Code
When Aida acquired the store in 1996 it was making money, but not a ton of it. She changed that in a hurry.
"The guy we bought it from had owned it since the 1950s," Sean remembers, "and he was very old-fashioned: Navy blue blazer, khakis, very proper. We brought in a younger team, cancelled the dress code, and most important we changed our product sources. We changed from selling mainly North American hats, which were doing very poorly at the time, to European- and South American-made hats. We tried to change with the times."
Then, just as the store was ramping up sales and profits, 9/11 happened.
"We made more money on any given day in the month before 9/11 than we did for the entire first month afterward," Sean recalls. "My parents had to re-mortgage our house a couple of times, and they're still digging out of that hole 13 years later, even though the business is profitable now."
Flip Your Lid
Ask Sean what you should look for in a fine hat.
"There are plenty of companies doing great things," he says. "Stetson, Borsalino and Roche were all founded in the mid-1800s. Stetson is an American company; they built up the American fur trade. They went downhill for a while, but now they make a beautiful hat. Borsalino from Italy always makes a fantastic hat, although they are a bit expensive. And there's a Spanish company called Roche that we're very excited about. They used to make bullfighting hats. Now they're making fashion hats for us that are unbelievable: great quality, solid price point, beautiful colors. Those are the big three."
According to Sean, fedoras will always be the most popular style—but J.J.'s most popular hats are the ones that crush. "Hats we'd characterize as 'travel hats' are very popular," he says, "especially with suitcases being smaller now. People like to be able to shove their hat into their suitcase or the overhead compartment. We sell more travel fedoras than anything else."
You Want to Try It On
When Aida bought the store in 1996, it had no online presence. But then, neither did anyone else.
"That was like the dawn of the internet," Sean laughs. "We didn't even have a web site until 2001. But before we had a web site we had a catalog—and the catalog generated just as much business as the web site does now."
Unlike most businesses, which are focusing more and more on ecommerce, social media, and on-line sales, J.J. does only a small percentage of its business though its web site. The site is appealing, with gorgeous pictures of derbies, homburgs, top hats and fedoras. But if you're going to drop $300 or $400 on a new Borsalino, you want to try it on, feel the weight of it, the stiffness of the brim, the ease with which it cocks those all-important three degrees on your dome.
That's why most customers who browse the catalog on J.J.'s web site end up coming into the flagship store, 310 Fifth Avenue, two blocks south of the Empire State Building. J.J.'s elegant wood-paneled showroom was originally built for IBM in 1925. (Didn't know IBM was that old, did you? It was actually founded in 1911, the same year Young's Stetson Hats/J.J. Hat Center set up business only a few blocks away.)
Scary-High-Stakes Poker Game
So everything is going great for J.J. Hat Center. There's only one problem. A big one.
As if the ordinary financial risks of operating a business weren't bad enough, the Hat Center finds itself playing in a scary-high-stakes poker game as commercial rents in New York City go through the roof. Newspaper stories in the last year or two reveal how even famous, high-rolling restaurants like the Union Square Café are being priced out of their neighborhoods when the rent triples overnight.
"Rising rents in New York really frighten us," Sean admits. "We have a prime location on Fifth Avenue, and our drop-in tourist business has increased by leaps and bounds—but we see everyone around us being kicked out. Our landlord is a very nice guy, and you assume it's not gonna happen, but you see it happening to so many other people. It's bad everywhere.
"If they kick us out of Fifth Avenue to get more rent from Starbucks, or whatever, we'll have a really hard time finding a new location. Our Brooklyn store is in Williamsburg. At the beginning of the recession, you could rent a store in Williamsburg for $1500 or $2000. Now the same stores are going for $20,000. If you're within a half-hour commute of Manhattan, and it's not a dangerous neighborhood, the rents are out of control.
"I don't know if the place would survive another move," he adds. "It's very difficult to move a landmark."