The J.J. Hat Center is on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. From outside, a pageant of felt and rabbit hair Borsalinos purpose the display window. Upon entry, the rightward wall is lined with dark derby, homburg and top hat styles. Leftward, earthen-hued fedoras and summer straw designs stock the shelves, and newsboy caps repose in a run of glass countertops. At the end of this rectangular shop, full hat racks punctuate flanking wood staircases where a pendent chandelier between them is fixed to the gold coffered ceiling. Somewhere else above, warm-volumed speakers circulate roots music. Here, in this New York City institution, resides hat maven Rod Springer.
Like a cat in a cane bottomed chair, he appears relaxed. His greyed patina eyes shine in his carmel complected skin. A white checkered shirt is bow-tied under a pea-green argyle vest; and lower, navy pinstripe trousers sit snug to suede oxfords. Without fail, he’s wearing a gutty green Borsalino. If it’s knowledge the man’s got it, if it’s class there’s no question. After 35 years in the hat business, Springer has become a fine assortment of New York City merit. We paid a visit to the polished 74 year old to speak hat shop.
So, why do some gentlemen seek out hats when others don’t?
“I think more often than not it’s passed down from generation to generation. Take me for instance. I’m 74 years old, but I grew up in a house where my father always told me, if you’re not wearing a hat you’re not dressed. It’s simple. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. You can have a great suit on, but if you’re not wearing a hat, you’re not really dressed. It’s like who bakes a cake and doesn’t put nice icing on it? Because icing is what really attracts you, you know?”
What’s your hat of choice?
“The Borsalino Traveler!” Springer pivots on his heel then turns over his shoulder. He slips out a keep of taupe-grey hats and lowers them to the counter. He lifts one and turns it over. “This guy here is completely unrivaled. It has a cloth sweatband and they keep it unlined so it’s as lightweight as possible,” he says. “But, what I like best is that you can shape it anyway you choose.”
Someone’s stray dime hits the floor and rolls from one end of the room to the other. On this note, Springer rights the hat. After making a center crease, he pinches the crown. It becomes a classic fedora. With the flick of a wrist the hat puffs back to factory shape. Again he makes a center crease, but this time folds the hat in half and rolls it tight like a newspaper. He gestures fitting it into his back pocket then reconstitutes the original shape again. But he doesn’t stop there.
“You can even wear it as a casual hat. See this here:” he presses his hand into the crown making a circled ridge like a pie crust. “This is what we call porkpie— it’s very popular—especially amongst the younger fellas. Those jazz musicians incorporate it, you know? One day it’s this, the next day it’s that. Now it’s an attitude kind of hat.”
Will any one of these prolonged shapes affect the integrity of a new shape?
“No. Borsalino designed this hat to be changed. It’s unlike any other. It breathes in more ways than one.”
We move along the rightward wall and Springer recounts a quick history of the Wall St. homburg, describing it with the phrase “money in your face”. On our way it feels appropriate to ask how many hats he owns.
To this question he smiles, “I could give away five a day for the rest of my life and hardly notice a dent.”
We arrive at a marble topped cabinet with a steal foot pedal. When the pedal is lowered, a pipe above emits a directed 250 degree steam. Springer straightens his bow tie then lowers the pedal. Steam begins to cloud the hat. Springer looks like someone turning a steak chop with their fingers. He shows how to make a diamond and then a teardrop shape before bringing it back to an open crown under more steam. All the while, onlookers are gaping throughout his demonstrations. Admittedly it’s very difficult to believe what he’s doing with just one hat. Moreover, something about his nature and these genuine actions feels dated. There’s something worth preserving here, but it’s difficult to understand or define. Perhaps this is a generation to generation thing.
We’ve not even moved on to discuss Blitmore, Kangol or Stetson when Springer suddenly pauses; he nods to familiar face, and finds himself pregnant with another thought.
“There’s so much you learn as you go along. Well, I guess that’s why they call me the old timer.”
J.J. Hat Center
310 5th Avenue #1
New York, NY 10001