Boston's glad hatter plies an almost-forgotten trade

IT'S a hot day on LaGrange Street. Across from the gaudy Club New Orleans, on the shady side of this street in Boston's notorious ``combat zone,'' Arthur Stephens takes a small paring knife out of his pocket. He carefully cuts through the black threads of time. ``Six and seven-eighths,'' he says quietly. In his hand is a beige man's hat. No measuring, no guessing the size. He knows hats, this hat, any hat. The knife cuts the threads holding the old, black hatband. It falls to the floor.

``This is a good beaver hat,'' says Mr. Stephens, twirling it over the knuckles of one hand. He will spend the next hour or so in loving restoration of another man's favorite hat.

For 54 years, inside a narrow LaGrange Street shop darkened by time and steam, and filled with the rakishness of hats on pegs everywhere, Stephens has plied the almost forgotten art of a hatter. Like a poet polishing verbs, Stephens makes, restores, and repairs fine hats. During the half-century he has been motivated by the axiom ``A man doesn't looked dressed unless he wears a hat.''

``My sisters were hat trimmers,'' he says proudly, ready to nurture just about any stained, drooping hat into new sheen and bearing. ``My father was a hatter, and my brothers were hatters, too. See, I like what I'm doing. You gotta like what you're doing. I'm 80 going on 81.

Arthur Stephens is the only bona fide, art-for-the-sake-of-art hatter left in Boston. Once there were dozens. Ernesto Marrone has been a customer for 10 years. ``You can't get this kind of service anywhere else,'' he says, ``not even in New York. I wear hats because I grew up in an old Italian neighborhood where hats were customary.''

Long before Stephens bought the shop on LaGrange, a man named Hand first opened it on a downtown Boston street. The year was 1860, the year Abraham Lincoln was elected President, and Mr. Hand proclaimed his shop ``Hand the Hatter.''

The shop thrived down one century to another, satisfying Bostonian gentlemen who wore homburgs, panamas, top hats, trilbies, derbys, westerns, fedoras, and even boaters. And when the young and ambitious Stephens bought the shop in 1934, he kept the name.

Today, above the door, slightly weathered and melancholy, a black-and-white sign still says, ``Hand the Hatter.''

The small shop window - protected by a steel grate - is so dusty and gray there is no seeing through it. One step up and through the open door and into the musty shop, and you have entered a time warp sliced from a faded calendar, circa 1930, with hats, hats, and more hats.

``You walk in here and say, `How come all this junk is here?''' says Stephens, a small man with rounded shoulders and a gruff, sentimental voice. ``But everything is ready for any kind of hat. You never know when you're going to use this stuff.''

``This stuff'' lying about is a Noah's ark of the hatter's craft. Shelves and tables full of wooden hat blocks, shelves full of wooden flanges to shape brims, a 40-year-old hissing copper boiler (steam for steaming the hats), ancient cans of ``luring'' grease (to bring out the sheen of hats), an old ``ironing'' machine that heats and shapes the crown of hat while it spins slowly on a block, and off in one corner a bulbous, heated ``sand'' machine (a flannel bag filled with heated beach sand) to lower over a hat on a flange to shape or reshape the brim.

``I used to work until 2 in the morning,'' says Stephens, recalling the heady, quicker pace of the 1930s. ``Saturdays, Sundays. I'd go out to eat, take a shower at a hotel, come back here, and go to work again. I could knock off maybe 40 to 50 hats a day. Today if I do eight or 10 I'm doing a big day's work.''

Stephens acknowledges that it was probably a hatless President named John Kennedy who helped take the steam out of the men's hat business. That and all the vets returning from World War II as men who refused to wear hats anymore. Add the long hair of men in the 1960s, and hats had a dim future.

``Kennedy didn't wear a hat,'' says Stephens, ``and everybody stopped wearing them. Men are wearing all different kinds of hats now, but still not like they used to. Do I wear hats? Sure. I keep a couple in my car.''

He pauses by the ironing machine, watching the blocked brown hat turning as the hot ``iron'' moves automatically and slowly around it, squeaking all the way. On a shelf a fan pushes the hot air around.

His voice lowers. ``Way back I made hats for Jimmy Durante,'' he says. ``His valet used to come here and get them. He'd say, `Jimmy needs a couple of hats,' and I'd know just what he wanted. Basil Rathbone used to buy hats from me, too.''

A new hat from Stephens will cost from $125 to $150. A restoration begins about $20 and often ends there, no matter how long it takes. ``I never really check the time, to tell you the truth,'' he says. ``I like the work, and when it's done, it's done.''

In the late afternoon a customer of 35 years comes in: a stocky, older man named Mitch with a straw hat needing the brim smoothed and stiffened. Stephens repairs the hat in minutes, using the sand machine and some deftly applied glue.

``I bought my first custom-made hat here in 1950,'' says Mitch, standing at the small counter near an enormous old cash register with a hand crank. ``I got one he made me a few years ago, and a couple of others,'' says Mitch. He says he would like another, a light gray this time.

He and Stephens strike an accord. A price of $85, with $40 down. Stephens fills out an order. Mitch peels off two $20 bills on the counter. ``I don't want you pushing yourself,'' he says to Stephens. They both laugh and agree that three weeks should be long enough to fashion the hat. They shake hands. Mitch says warmly, ``I need you. Don't push yourself on this.''

Minutes later, a young man in a leather vest and tie enters and picks up a custom-made hat, a tan, narrow-brimmed trilby. Stephens packs the hat in a new Stetson hat box and tosses in a cluster of small red and yellow feathers for the hatband. When the young man leaves, Stephens says: ``If you're any kind of a businessman, you throw a man a few feathers.''

Late in the afternoon he sits in one of the four old chairs just inside the front door in a pensive mood. ``These are all old customers now,'' he says quietly. ``They know I won't sell them a bad hat. If I had said a $100 for the hat, Mitch would have paid it. No arguments.''

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