In 1918, a Peruvian immigrant named Napoleon Marquez, who had been reared on the Ecuadorian style of straw hat-making, emigrated to the United States, and opened City Hat Works on Geary Boulevard in the Outer Richmond.
It was a boom time for hats. Take a look at this excerpt from a 1921 American Hatter magazine article:
“When one traverses the streets of San Francisco he really wonders if there are any defined styles of hats for men. Being a cosmopolitan city it attracts men of all nations and within one block one can see almost every kind of hat or cap that was ever made. There are soft hats of all sizes, derbies of every shape, big sombreros of men of the plains, and the ever-present cap.”
Marquez’s godson, Kelly Bowling, took over the shop upon his retirement, and dubbed it “Paul’s” Hat Works, a reference to Napoleon’s nickname. A third owner, Michael Harris came aboard in the ’80s. But the omnipresence of hats had long since evaporated–maybe due to JFK eschewing the fashion fixture, or maybe because of the impracticality of wearing a hat in the car.
In any case, on December 28th, 2012 the San Francisco Chronicle published a deathbed eulogy of the venerated husk:
“Geary Boulevard is a busy street, but it’s quiet at Paul’s on a December afternoon and the place smells musty, like one of those tombs explored by Indiana Jones, who always wore a hat.
“‘Outside,’ [owner Michael] Harris said, ‘it is 2008. In here, it is 1924.’
“One minute he says he’s going to close the place, the next he says he’s optimistic about finding a buyer. He hints about negotiations, but it sounds like wishful thinking.
“‘I hope somebody will step up to the plate and invest in the future of part of San Francisco,’ he said. ‘When places of this caliber are lost, they seldom come back.'”
Four days later, on New Year’s Day, 2009, Harris opened up his shop as a ceremonial way of saying goodbye. Right next door at Joe’s Coffee Shop, four New Year’s Eve-attired women–Abbie Dwelle, Olivia Griffin, Wendy Hawkins, and Kirsten Hove–were eating breakfast. On their way down the block, they saw that the usually-closed Paul’s Hat Works was open. They took a look inside.
‘Oh, you’re finally open,’ said Olivia. ‘I love your hatboxes. What are you doing here? Why are you never open?’
Harris explained, ‘I make hats. Nobody buys hats anymore. I’ve been making hats for too long. I started as a sign painter, and 35 years later, I should probably go back to being a painter. You’re my knight in shining armor. Hello. Buy my store.’
“We were like, ‘Yeah right, we can’t buy your store, thats silly,'” recalls Abbie recently. “‘Well, maybe we can, I don’t know, let’s talk about it.'”
Spoiler alert: They bought it.
“None of us had read the [Chronicle] article. It was just a coincidence,” recalls Abbie, who also supplied the above quotes, while showing a couple of us Wingtippers around the Works.
In 2012, the shop is infused with life, while still tied to its history. There’s a fluorescent display in the windows, but there’s big-band music playing on an automatic record-changer. (That’s like a CD changer–which now sounds dated in its own right–maybe more like shuffle mode. You know, it’s old.)
Abbie demonstrates how to properly fit a head for a hat, using me as a subject. To find my hat size, she unveils the conformiture (left), which she assure me its the absolute height of 1860s technology. It looks like a torture helmet, but its metal fingers deliver a brief massage as they wrap around my skull and measure its perimeter. Abbie pulls a small lever and 50 pins impress a note card with their findings.
Turns out I have a medium-oval head.
As Abbie shows us around the shop–including an incredible collection of antique hat moldings–we ask a few more questions:
How did you learn how to make hats?
We apprenticed with the previous owner, as he had apprenticed with the previous owner, as he had apprenticed with the previous owner.
We had a lot of history individually in sewing and costuming and knowing textiles, and when we started apprenticed with [Harris] he was like, ‘Man, it took me 10 years to get to where you guys are.’ We still call him once every month, two months–[Harris is now a] landscape painter in Southern California–but were starting to invent things ourselves too.
Could you explain the controversy over the name of the “Panama” hat?
What is normally called the Panama hat is a hat that has been handwoven in Ecuador. The hat was popularized with the opening of the Panama Canal, so you had all these people–not from the area–working in the sun, and you also had this new hub of commerce. So everybody was like, ‘Oh, I can take this thing that I make for myself and sell it to people, tourists, workers.’ I think one of the presidents bought the entire workforce straw hats. It became popular there for those reasons, so the “Panama” hat has stuck.
How did you put your crew together?
I met all of them individually in different places and they all eventually moved in with me in the neighborhood, and we lived together and did a theatrical, costuming community production company [called Superfragilecatalytic productions].
We kind of have the same roles here: I do the maintenance, Olivia does the talking, Kirsten is naturally good at collecting resources, Wendy’s a great bookkeeper…
You said you can actually wear your beaver hat in the rain.
I like umbrellas a lot visually, and I have a giant collection of umbrellas–but I hate using them. Especially in SF, because it rains sideways, and the wind, and the breaking of the umbrella…
I’ve worn hats in the rain before, but learning about beaver felt and making hats out of beaver felt–it’s phenomenal. I can walk around for two or three hours wearing my beaver felt hat and a trench coat and I’m fine, and when I walk up to the street corner and there’s this really sad, wet, cold man standing there, and he can’t see because the rain’s blowing in his eyes, and he’s gotta cross the street and you can tell he’s miserable… I feel so guilty ’cause I’m standing next to him, I’m warm, I’m dry, I can see and it’s romantic and beautiful outside when its pouring rain, ’cause my hat protects me and when I get home I just put my hat upside down and let it dry and then I wear it the next day.
Is the beaver felt given a special treatment?
The hats are not treated with anything, we’re kind of purists that way, but the beaver felt is naturally water repellant. It’s not water proof. It will soak up the water eventually. Beaver felt is great because even when its soaking wet, it can hold its shape, it has a really great memory–it’ll keep the snap and the brim.
Where did the vintage ribbons come from?
The vintage ribbons have been collected by the previous owners of the store over the years. As other hat businesses and fabric stores have gone under, the previous owners started collecting and buying people out. They’re all cotton-rayon, pre-1940s, all natural, and the colors are classy and muted. If you tell me you want grey ribbon, I ask, ‘Do you want brown-grey, green-grey, yellow-grey, blue-grey? I mean, lets get specific here.’
Specific indeed. To create a hat to your measurements get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.