After eviction, Henry the Hatter happy at Eastern Market

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Paul Wasserman already enjoyed his own funeral, the public lamentation nearly two years ago when he announced that Henry the Hatter was closing.

Now, with his shop thriving after a move from downtown to Eastern Market, he and the store have progressed to a gleeful rebirth — which is not something you expect when your business is 126 years old.

Furthermore, with a succession plan already in progress, Detroit's first name in hats is all but assured a new adolescence and beyond.

This is a business that is so historic its original phone number was 970. A business that served, for better or worse, the Purple Gang in the 1930s and gang-bangers 40 years later. A business that supplied the homburg atop President Dwight Eisenhower's esteemed head at his inauguration in 1957.

At 72, Henry the Hatter owner Paul Wasserman, above, is slowly selling out to 34-year employee Joe Renkiewicz after a move from downtown to Eastern Market.

Wasserman says that in late June 2017, when he announced his shop on Broadway Street had lost its lease, he fully expected to shut down operations in Detroit and most likely find a buyer for his branch in Southfield. 

Instead, he did 11 print and broadcast interviews, fielded a cavalcade of phone calls, reassessed his place in the world and started looking for a new home.

Today he has a five-year lease with three five-year options in a former meatpacking warehouse at 2472 Riopelle, next to a distillery that's also part of the new flavor of the market and a poultry business that's part of the old.

At 72, he's slowly selling out to 34-year employee Joe Renkiewicz, who loves the way the aroma changes daily on the sidewalk out front — frequently onions, or maybe chicken if the wind blows from the east.

Wooed by an Eastern Market executive who pedaled to the previous store on a vintage bicycle, Wasserman is snickering at his former landlord, praising his new one and keeping a wary eye on the developers buying up nearby buildings as longtime tenants vacate.

"Sometimes when you face adversity and misfortune, things have a way of working out for the better. Our business has not only held on, it has improved," he says.

As for the owners of his previous quarters downtown, "they got a crumbling, empty building, which is exactly what they deserve."

Employee Jovon Garrison, right, helps customer Jerome Dearing, 34, of Detroit find a hat at the store’s new home in a former meatpacking warehouse at 2472 Riopelle.

And the free-spending newcomers, like Linden and son Sanford Nelson, whose beef with Russell Street Deli went untidily public?

"They need to take a good, hard look at what they're doing," Wasserman says. "They need to be more concerned about what makes the character of the market."

For the hat shop, character means having to sweep the floor every Saturday. The downside of improved foot traffic and a 10% boost in sales is that on farmers market days, shoppers wander through the store pulling wagon-loads of plants, produce and dirt.

Traffic was particularly high last week, with Father's Day looming. The holiday "is kind of the Christmas of the summer," he says.

But even an average day feels festive compared to the prospect of closing a business his father bought in 1948.

Henry Komrofsky, the original Hatter, opened the first shop on Gratiot Avenue in 1893. He took on a partner in 1919, then died in 1941.

Seven years later, Seymour "Sy" Wasserman heard there might be an opportunity in Detroit and caught a train.

Sy had a hat shop in New York with no room to expand and a junior partner he didn't like. He also had an infant son, meaning Paul, and a daughter on the way. He bought the store on sight, moved his family, ultimately moved the store and sold hats until he died in 1998.

Joe Renkiewicz, 56, right with Paul Wasserman, is one year into a nine-year stock purchase. The store is set to become fully his in 2027.

The store has stayed true to its roots, even if customers have stopped asking for the hat Coleman Young wore and started asking for the one Kid Rock modeled on the album cover for "Devil Without a Cause" — an Amalfi Jr. center-crease fedora from the Giorgio Cellini house brand priced at $225.

On a recent bright afternoon, Duane Hines has selected a cream Adventurer fedora from Stetson ($59.88) and a narrow-brimmed blue pork pie from Broner ($29.88) in preparation for a trip to Las Vegas.

Hines, 62, has paid more for hats and also 100% less. He drives in these days from Superior Township, north of Ypsilanti, but in his wayward youth he ran with an east side social federation called the Chain Gang.

Sometimes he and his friends would buy their Borsalinos, and sometimes they would snatch them from people's heads. It was a shopping technique that landed Hines in juvenile detention.

"Henry the Hatter, man. It's a statement," he says. "They represent the city of Detroit."

The store's client base includes Linden Nelson, whose partnership has spread $30 million across Eastern Market since 2017 in exchange for 17 buildings.

Nelson picked out four hats at a special vintage night in September, Renkiewicz says, and asked for a volume discount. The request was denied, but he bought the hats anyway.

If Eastern Market had a hat store before, no one can recall it, but Dan Carmody says it's a natural fit.

"It's an independent small business. Those are the kinds we tend to favor," says the president of the nonprofit Eastern Market Corp.

Duane Hines of Superior Township picked up a cream fedora and a blue pork pie at the store. “Henry the Hatter, man. It’s a statement,” he says. “They represent the city of Detroit.”

Carmody rode his British-made 1971 Dawes 10-speed to Wasserman's door to pitch the virtues of the district.

"We don't want to poach another neighborhood," he says, "but once it's announced, we want to do what we can."

The previous store sits on a block that Detroit's comeback is still catching up to. It's the third empty storefront southeast of the lively Punch Bowl Social entertainment center. Four more blank spaces sit across the street.

Wasserman says he asked his landlord for a lease extension in March 2017. The response was an eviction notice.

By December, he had reopened in a space vacated by the pet supplies store 3 Dogs 1 Cat when it moved further up Riopelle.

He is enjoying his hard feelings and the gradual wind-down of his working life: four days a week, with fewer in the future as Renkiewicz grows more comfortable as the capo of caps.

Renkiewicz, 56, is one year into a nine-year stock purchase, gladder by the day that he chose the correct option in January 1985.

He could have continued driving a truck for a bakery that closed years ago. He could have taken a job with Woody Pontiac in Hamtramck, where the dealership and brand are equally defunct.

Just back from his honeymoon, he went with hats — "and Henry lives on."

An autographed poster of longtime customer Kid Rock hangs at the Eastern Market home for Henry the Hatter.

The store has a chip reader for modern credit cards, but receipts are still hand-written. You can spend up to $600 for a beaver Borsalino Ultima, but when someone from Maryland calls about a $29 yacht cap, Renkiewicz lines up all six colors and texts a cellphone photo to help the buyer decide.

The winner: white, with a gold cord and the traditional scrambled egg detail on the blue bill.

It's a classic, Renkiewicz says. He'll still be selling it when the store becomes fully his in 2027. And a century from then?

Check back and see.

Twitter: nealrubin_dn