Detroit — The new Henry the Hatter shop in Eastern Market isn’t yet full of fedoras, straw hats and baseball caps, but owner Paul Wasserman assured his inventory of nearly 9,000 hats will fill the empty cases by Thanksgiving.
The new location at 2472 Riopelle takes the place of the pet shop 3 Dogs 1 Cat, which relocated a few blocks down Riopelle. Henry the Hatter closed its former store on Broadway Aug. 5 due to a rent dispute with the building’s owner that led to termination of the lease.
Speaking to the Detroit News during a media preview Thursday morning, Wasserman admitted he wasn’t sure he wanted to pack up the hats and move to a new location after that. Henry the Hatter has another shop in Southfield, which has been opened since 1992.
“The easiest thing for me to have done would have been to close down to one store and ride off into the sunset and retire,” Wasserman said, standing among empty hat cases that arrived to the new location Wednesday. “I turned 70 last June, but it became apparent in July and August, by talking to all the customers who came in, that we were a touchstone for the city. There were many heartfelt stories of multigenerational customers in the same family and people took a personal affront that something that was happening to them.
“This wasn’t me losing a lease. It was them losing a place that they love. So after hearing that for a month, I was determined that we had to relocate.”
The hat shop had been in business on Broadway for 65 years. Yet the Henry the Hatter’s history goes back much further. Henry Komrofsky founded the company in 1893 on Gratiot, making it the oldest hat shop in the United States, according to Wasserman.
In 1919, Komrofsky partnered with Gustave Newman, who became sole owner in 1941. He sold the company to Seymour “Sy” Wasserman seven years later. In 1952, Wasserman moved Henry the Hatter to the Broadway location.
Paul Wasserman is Sy’s son, who joined his father’s business in 1972. Sy Wasserman died in 1998 at age 83. His 101st birthday would have been on the day the downtown shop closed in August.
Wasserman said he had “a gazillion offers” from property owners in New Center, Corktown and the Avenue of Fashion on Livernois, but he wanted to be as close to the downtown shop as possible.
“This is literally four minutes from the old store,” he said. “It’s just a straight-shot down Gratiot.”
The Eastern Market shop is about 2,500 square feet, which is more than twice as large as the Detroit shop. Wasserman still has to figure out where to display everything, but said he plans to have an exhibition area featuring the history of the store, old photographs, and, of course, old hats.
Eastern Market Corporation president Dan Carmody said he’s also excited to see the hat retailer move in between the Detroit City Distillery and Beau Bien Fine Foods.
“This block is a perfect metaphor for how that’s been unfolding when you have a distillery on one side and a brewing company opening up on another side, but you still have the emerging local food scene,” he said.
The downtown Henry the Hatter employed three people during the week and four on the weekends. Wasserman said he plans to increase the staff slightly.
“If we have to add more, that would be a wonderful thing,” he said.
Store hours are to be determined, but Wasserman said they will likely be based on activity around the market.
Over the years, celebrities, politicians and athletes have stopped in the shop, seeking the latest fashionable hats. Notable customers include former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, Kid Rock, Jack White, Jeff Daniels and Steve Harvey.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower even sported a Henry the Hatter homburg to his inauguration in 1956.
“It was a homburg, rather than the traditional silk top hat, to reflect the need for austerity in the federal government,” the shop’s website states.
The shop has also gained recognition over the decades. The Traveling Hat Salesman Association of American awarded “Hat Retailer of the Year” to Sy Wasserman in 1977 and Paul Wasserman in 2000.
Wasserman has a five-year lease, with five-year extension options. He said he’s here for the long-term and hopes this will be his last move. The store, he added, is a “survivor.”
“We’re very, very difficult to defeat, and we’re back and we’re in Detroit,” he said, “and we hope to be here for another 124 years.”