A few weeks ago, news went out that rocked Detroit's small business community. Henry the Hatter, which claims to be the country's oldest hat shop, will close the doors of its downtown location after 124 years of business. But since the announcement, Henry the Hatter doesn't look like a struggling store. In fact, customers are packing in, some browsing, and others trying on their newly chosen hats.
Paul Wasserman has owned Henry the Hatter since 1998, though it's been the family business since 1948. Two hats hang on the wall of his office; they belonged to his father, Seymour Wasserman.
"As a fond reminder of him having been my teacher, I keep them on the wall," he said. "And it makes me smile when I see them to this day."
Henry the Hatter has been in Detroit since 1893, changing hands a few times before the Wasserman family took control. Its downtown location has changed three times as well, though always staying within the same few blocks.
Wasserman says he took up the hat business in 1972, picking up his passion for the trade while working under his father. Seymour Wasserman passed away in early December of 1998, and worked at the downtown shop until a week before he died. The Wasserman family opened up two more stores outside Detroit — one in Southfield, and one in Hamtramck. The Hamtramck store closed in 2009, but Wasserman says the Southfield location is still doing well.
Henry the Hatter has had the same landlord for 22 years. The store's lease on the building is ending, and Wasserman says his landlord is exercising an escape clause. He was blindsided by the news, but says he's sure they'll find a new location downtown.
Customers come in and out of Henry the Hatter all day, many asking Wasserman about the store's future. He says a majority of his client base is native Detroiters who visit year after year.
Outside its loyal support base, Henry the Hatter can boast lots of famous customers. President Eisenhower wore a Henry the Hatter homburg to his inauguration. Michigan-bred celebrities like Jack White and Jeff Daniels are also reported fans. And in the back corner of the shop, a hat signed by Kid Rock sits in a glass case.
"In 2012, he did a fundraiser for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and raised $1 million," Wasserman said. "He asked me to donate hats, so the entire DSO could be wearing Kid Rock-style hats."
Wasserman says his ideal downtown location just has to fit with his budget, which is difficult because rents downtown keep rising. But since announcing the Broadway store will close, he says he's received several offers from landlords who want to help keep the iconic store downtown. Even Mayor Mike Duggan's office says it's reached out to help in any way it can.
"Since the store was announced to close, we've had such an outpouring of support from people," Wasserman said. "It's very gratifying to know that we're kind of a touchstone for people who are in Detroit."
The last day to visit the Broadway store is August 5.