Hat tricks

Two Baltimore hatmakers hang on to tradition in a fading shopping district

During lunch hour, Anthony Grant bolts into the tiny Ecuador Hat Co., which is already crowded with three men mulling over this season's offerings.

"Where's the hat? Where's the hat in the window?" he says, looking over the wall display of straw hats, porkpies, fedoras, and classic Panamas with black bands.

Finally, he spies a small straw with a rail-thin brim getting special treatment in the counter case. John Macas, the owner of the 70-year-old store, whistles as he reaches for the hat. Before handing it to Mr. Grant, he does his signature hat flip.

The gallery goes wild.

"That looks nice, man," comments one customer.

"That's a nice hat there, brother," chimes in another.

"Oh, here we go."

Grant bought the hat, even though his wife will get on his case later. (He estimates that he's got about 30 at home.)

"She has her pocketbooks, I have my hats," he says to guffaws from the other men.

The heyday for brim hats may have long since faded, but some older African-Americans still choose to wear them, making waves in a sea of baseball caps and bare heads.

"Wear the brim down, cocked to one side, and go about your business and people will look," says Grant.

What Grant and his cohorts didn't know was that they were unwitting participants in the forgotten tradition of Straw Hat Day.

Back in the 1920s and '30s, when Macas's father, an Ecuadorean hatmaker, came to Baltimore, May 15 was the day men exchanged their felt hats for straws. This was a big deal, as nearly everyone wore a hat.

Back then, Baltimore, with its three hat-manufacturing companies, claimed to be the straw-hat capital of the country. The yearly fashion rite was written up in newspapers. Men would go to the baseball stadium with their new lids, and at the end of the season, on Sept. 15, they would throw their old straws onto the field.

But this year's Straw Hat Day has taken on an ominous tone for the two surviving manufacturers on Baltimore's west side - Ecuador Hat Co. and Hippodrome Hatters. The owners wonder if their stores will be around for next year's Straw Hat Day.

The city of Baltimore plans to redevelop 18 city blocks in order to create an upscale shopping and residential district, centered around a $53-million conversion of a movie house into the city's premier theater. About 55 business owners so far have been sent offers by the city to buy their properties.

For owners, the issue is all-consuming, their own personal "condemnation without representation" Revolutionary War, as one calls it.

Around the corner at Hippodrome Hatters, Louis and Judy Boulmetis hunker down in a back office surrounded by sewing machines and wooden hat-shaping blocks.

Above Mr. Boulmetis is what he calls his silent sales force - posters of Humphrey Bogart, Dan Aykroyd, and Dick Tracy - all wearing hats.

Boulmetis, now vice president of the merchants' association, has a campaign speechwriter's flair for talking in slogans. "We're hoping for the best, but planning for the worst," he says.

His wife gets right to the issue's emotional epicenter. "When they tear down the buildings, I wanna know which part is the heart of the building, something that I'm going to have in the house where I can look at it and say, 'This building still lives,' " she says.

Getting woozy from glue

Their roots run deep.

After Boulmetis's Greek grandfather, a seaman, jumped ship at the port of Baltimore, he found work as a hat cleaner.

Meanwhile, Macas's father established a small cottage hatmaking company with family members assembling the hats in the basement and getting woozy from the glue.

But those days have gone, along with the once-mighty department stores that made bustling Howard Street the retail center of the state.

Now there's a different kind of bustle. The current clientele - largely African-American - is less attractive to developers than wealthy tourists.

"They're trying to change the racial mix, the complexion of the area," says Boulmetis. "They want fewer wig shops and nail salons, and they want to replace those with upscale businesses, bookstores, and Internet cafes. Who are these people to say? That's not what we want."

Charles Graves, the director of the city's planning department, says the west side was once a prominent shopping area that has deteriorated while other areas have been restored. The Inner Harbor, Camden Yards, and the University of Maryland have reaped the benefits of a strong economy and government funds.

"This area has been suffering, and we wanted to do something to strengthen that area," he says.

The state legislature passed a bill mandating that preservation of the west side's architecture be given greater consideration in the renewal project, and that business owners be fairly compensated. Currently, merchants are negotiating with the city.

'Little guy gets crunched'

News of the hat stores' possible demise hasn't reached everyone on the street.

Some customers come in aware of the stores' looming closure. Still others know enough of the story to confirm their belief that, in end, the little guy gets crunched.

"That's what they say: The poorest pay the morest [sic]," says Vernon Greene. He's one of three shoppers in the Ecuador at the moment, all of whom were first taken there by their fathers or grandfathers when they were boys.

It's not that they won't be able to pick up a hat from a mall, but no place else has the selection and the exact sizes that these old-time hat stores carry.

Plus, the old hands like Macas and Boulmetis know how a hat should sit on the head, how fabric breathes, and how brims complement a person's build.

Customer Larry Parham doesn't want to hear about shopping alternatives.

"There is no other hat store in the state of Maryland," he says. "This is the hat store."

Still, business is vibrant amid all the gloomy talk.

Rashidi William Bowe comes walking into the Hippodrome and immediately asks for the classic Panama. Wearing crisp slacks, a translucent acrylic shirt, a thin gold chain, and an earring, Mr. Bowe and the Panama look good together.

"I look like my pop," says Bowe, taking his first glimpse in the mirror.

He recalls that his first hat as a young man was a straw.

"It was a big thing to go in a store and buy a hat, because you're in there with men, mingling and getting into their conversation."

Times change. The camaraderie is not a guaranteed find in the hat shops.

Many of the customers come in like lone wolves on a desperation mission.

As one customer who shopped at both stores says, "I tell you, it's hard to find what you want these days."

Baseball cap is still king

And to Macas's chagrin, the baseball cap is king among youths.

But the few young people who stray in have that same blaze in their eyes as the old-timers when they spy what they've been hunting for.

On Straw Hat Day, 20-something Maurice Reed bypassed all the old-time hats until he found the terry-cloth Kangol Bermuda hats.

Mr. Reed, a chef, plopped down $210 for seven hats in different colors.

"A hat will help show off what you wear," he says. "It's you. It's style."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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