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Fifth Avenue Hat Store Celebrates 100th Anniversary

By Mary Johnson | August 30, 2011 2:29pm
Marc Williamson, 41, has been working at J.J. Hat Center for 20 years.
Marc Williamson, 41, has been working at J.J. Hat Center for 20 years.
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DNAinfo/Mary Johnson

MIDTOWN — There is a hat for every man and woman, every face shape and head size — at least according to the crew at J.J. Hat Center on Fifth Avenue and 32nd Street, which turns 100 this year.

Marc Williamson, who manages the store and is one of the partners in the business, said he can convince the hat-leery that they can look good 99 pecent of the time if they just accessorize their heads.

“You can find quite a few styles that are going to look good on you,” said Williamson, 41, who has been working at the store for about 20 years. “You’ll see that, you know what? This is not so bad.”

J.J. Hat Center, which touts itself as New York's oldest hat shop, has changed hands several times over the course of the past century and has moved from a location at 1276 Broadway, near West 33rd Street, to its current home inside IBM’s original New York showroom at 310 Fifth Avenue.

Williamson himself makes a habit out of wearing hats. He said he owns more than 30 and rarely leaves his home in Woodside, Queens, without one on.

“I think that’s very common with men who wear hats,” said Williamson, dressed in a dapper gray vest and a fedora with a 2-inch brim. “Guys who really wear hats, in their neighborhood, they’re known. ‘That’s the hat guy.’”

Pretty much everyone who works inside J.J. Hat Center is a hat guy. Kevin Todd, who was wearing a nogal straw hat in a fedora style with a wide brim on a recent Thursday, has worked at the store for 19 years. And José Henriquez, who was wearing a panama straw hat, has been a shop employee for about 15 years.

Henriquez considers himself a bit of a hat historian, spouting off tidbits about how the construction of the Panama Canal led to the popularity of the Panama-style hat and how the Indiana Jones films were huge for the hat industry.

“There’s always been pockets of excitement in head wear,” Henriquez said.

In the past five to seven years, there has been another surge in hat popularity, Henriquez said. Musicians such as Justin Timberlake and shows like "Mad Men" have driven up demand for stingy (or narrow)-brimmed fedoras, which are now the store's best-selling styles.

The store also carries top hats with decorative feathers tucked into the brim, pageboy caps, English driving hats and straw campaign hats. Prices range from $50 to $600.

Most of the hats are made for men—although Williamson said his female customers often purchase men’s hats for themselves. And none of his products are made in house. Instead, Williamson said, the store sells hats made all over the world, from Italy and Germany to Ireland, Ecuador and the United States.  

Over the years, J.J. Hat Center has racked up a loyal clientele who often stop into the store to share baby photos and exchange hugs. The list of customers also includes some notable figures, but Williamson declined to specify just who among the rich and famous are regulars at J.J.'s.

“I don’t like to name drop,” he said.

But one famous visitor does stand out in his mind. On a stormy Saturday in the summer of 1997, actress Juliette Binoche sought refuge from the rain inside J.J. Hat Center, Williamson said.

It was the year she won the Oscar for her role in “The English Patient.” She was sweet and kind, Williamson said, and she bought two or three hats before sitting on a bench at the front of the store while she waited out the rain.

Henriquez remembered that day too, and the two of them smiled as they recalled Binoche staring out the window, watching the rain fall.

 “I've been doing this so long, I have many [customers] who are near and dear,” Williamson said. “It's like a comfy place, you know?”