Rent too high: Henry the Hatter to close

Charles E. Ramirez, and Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Detroit — Hold on to your hat. Detroit’s iconic Henry the Hatter is closing its historic downtown store.

Henry the Hatter

But a quasi-public Detroit agency confirmed Friday that it is talking to store owner Paul Wasserman about ways to keep the store in the city.

Wasserman, 70, said he’s closing up the shop after 65 years at its current location on Broadway after a dispute over the store’s rent led to termination of its lease.

“It’s getting to the point where businesses like mine are going to have a hard time in the city,” he said. “You are just not going to be able to pay the high rents and stay in business unless you’re a large chain.”

The surge of people and businesses moving into downtown and adjacent areas such as Midtown has led to lower vacancy rates and higher prices for properties and lease rates.

Paul Wasserman, President of Henry the Hatter, talks about the upcoming closing of his Detroit store.

Wasserman said when he asked for an extension for the lease in March, he was sent a letter from the owner’s lawyers terminating the lease effective in August. Both parties had a termination clause in the lease, and the owners exercised it, he said.

“So in response for my asking for an extension, they sent a letter from their lawyer terminating me,” Wasserman said.

Wasserman said the store’s last day for business will be Aug. 5.

According to real estate records, the building is owned by Broadway Associates, which is controlled by the Detroit-based Sterling Group. The News left messages with the company that were not returned Friday.

Wasserman said it’s his hope to stay in Detroit, but “as of this moment, I have yet to find a place and a location that makes sense for me at a price that I can afford.”

The Detroit Economic Growth Corporation is hoping to help Henry the Hatter.

“We have been in contact with Mr. Wasserman and expect to continue talking to him about options that would keep Henry the Hatter open in Detroit,” Detroit Economic Growth Corp. Chief of Staff, Amanda C. Hanlin said in a Friday statement.

Regardless of what happens with the Detroit site, the hat hawker’s other location in Southfield will stay open. Wasserman said it will take weeks to figure out what to keep and take to the Southfield store and what to discard.

When seeking a slick fedora or a long-lasting Stetson, Henry the Hatter was the place many from around the region would frequent, from mayoral candidates who made the storefront on Broadway their first stop to athletes and entertainers who featured the store in videos.

“We have always been a touchstone for Detroit natives,” Wasserman said. “The loyal customer base kept us going in the hard times. The athletes and the celebrities are wonderful, and over the years I’ve gotten to know and shake the hands of many, many famous people.

“But what kept us going was the not-so-famous people who are extremely loyal and kept coming even when they could have gone elsewhere.”

Founded in 1893, the company says it’s the oldest hat retailer in the United States.

Derrick Brown, who has worked on and off at the Broadway store for 23 years, is holding out hope that the lease could be renewed once the building owners “understand what Henry the Hatter means to the city of Detroit.”

“The location is ideal for where we are. If we have to relocate, it would for our customers to get used to going someplace but we do believe they will still come,” Brown said. “The tradition will be lost. With gentrification, something always comes that’s new and different. Who knows what will be in this space?

“It kept Detroit on the map,” he continued. “Celebrities come here. Entertainers. The mayors…We’ve had hats for Coleman Young, Dennis Archer. Not just locally but internationally. We get customers from all over the world.”

He said when Detroiters go places around the country, they wear the Hatter hats.

Derrick Brown, assistant manager, talks about the upcoming closing of the Detroit store.

Brown said people hear about the Hatter through word of mouth.

“It spreads like wildfire,” he said. “People say, ‘You’re from Detroit aren’t you? That’s a Henry the Hatter hat. I can tell.’ ”

Henry the Hatter was started by Henry Komrofsky in 1919 after he formed a partnership with Gustave Newman. Newman became sole owner following Komrofsky’s death in 1941, later selling the company to native New Yorker Seymour “Sy” Wasserman in 1948.

Several years later, Wasserman moved Henry the Hatter to its location on Broadway in 1952.

The current owner is Sy’s son, who joined his father in the business in 1972.

Henry the Hatter boasts celebrities such as Kid Rock, Jeff Daniels, Jack White, Peter Karmanos, George Clinton, Mike Epps and Steve Harvey among its clientele.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower wore a Henry the Hatter homburg to his inauguration in 1956.

Darcella McCullough, 63, of Detroit, was in picking up a hat Friday and lamented the store’s apparent demise.

“This place is legendary,” she said. “This place stands to be a part of Detroit’s history. When I think of a hat, this is the first place I think to go. The variety is good, the pricing is wonderful, the atmosphere…the service is phenomenal and it stands with great integrity and character as far as I’m concerned.”

McCullough said even with Detroit’s sudden and rapid renaissance, “I thought we were kind of getting a sense of people having their own businesses again. The big malls were sizing down and I know a lot of people shop online. But as far as up close and personal service, I’m a little old school.

“I like it here. It’s more than a store to get a hat.”