Henry the Hatter. The name invokes Detroit history as much as J. L. Hudson’s, Michigan Central, and Sanders.
Henry Komrofsky, the founder, lived many lives as a Detroit resident – band musician, State of Michigan boxing commissioner, school board member. But it was hats where he made his living, and make it, he did.
Henry the Hatter bills itself as the oldest hat retailer in the United States, established in 1893, and moving through five locations in its 125 years in business. It’s now in its fifth home, a new store in Eastern Market at 2472 Riopelle St.
“We are absolutely thrilled to be here,” says owner Paul Wasserman, whose father, Seymour, bought the store in 1948, moving his family to Detroit from New York to take it over.
“We were very lucky to have found wonderful people throughout the whole process – it was kind of like lining up dominoes. This was my vision and I am over the moon at the way it turned out,” says Wasserman, who will mark 70 years in the business in 2018.
By now, the story of Henry the Hatter’s moving locales has been well-documented. From the time the news broke that it lost its lease at 1307 Broadway, the outcry was heard from Jefferson to Eight Mile, and from Livernois to Alter Road.
Henry’s was moving! Closing?!
What of the great old sign that had stayed the course on Broadway all these years, what would happen to it?
The rumors were swirling, but all Wasserman knew was a new space had to be found.
“I knew we were terminated in the middle of April, but didn’t say anything until end of June,” he says. “When the story broke, people started contacting me left and right. Real estate was offered in New Center, and even space up the road in the old Wurlitzer building, site of the new Siren Hotel on Broadway. The city asked if they could help and many organizations, like the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, and developers from Corktown and Eastern Market.
“Everybody wanted us,” Wasserman quips.
It was the Eastern Market location that finally won out.
“We do feel like it’s a great spot,” he says of the 3,000 square feet they’ve settled into in Eastern Market. Of that space, 1,400 is floor space and the rest is with offices, storage, and so on.
Waserman’s former space had been 1,800 square feet with access to the whole building – four floors in total, the second of which once housed a hat manufacturing workroom.
Other locations have come and gone over the years – on Michigan Avenue, Gratiot, and Griswold, and in Hamtramck, which closed in 2009 due to declining business. A second location in Southfield is still open.
Nothing, it seems, can stop Henry
He says while working at the new location the weekend before the grand opening on December 8, “we must have given out 75 catalogs.
“People were pulling up trying to find out when we were opening. Some were new people who didn’t even know who we were. We were getting 15 to 20 calls a day asking when we were opening,” he says.
Not at all given to melancholy, Wasserman sees it as a fresh start. “For those customers who have shopped with us for so many years, we are so appreciative.”
The new story not only has the prized merchandise. The hardware came along in the move, including the original display cabinets put into the Henry the Hatter store in the 1950s.
And the original façade?
It came along too.
Business at Harry the Hatter is robust. How many hats does the store typically sell? In the summertime, an average of 300-400 are sold every month – straw hats mostly, with about 200-300 caps sold as well. The wintertime sees an average of 300 hats sold as well.
“They make wonderful gifts at the holidays – and for those who don’t know what size someone is, we do sell gift certificates,” Wasserman says.
Henry the Hatter’s clientele is a roster of some of Detroit’s most famous names including Kid Rock, almost always seen wearing a hat, and who Wasserman says has done a lot for their store. Jack White, founder and lead singer of The White Stripes, Duke Fakir, one of the original Four Tops, the Funk Brothers, and actor Jeff Daniels are also customers.
Bigger non-Detroit names have also frequented the store, like the rap group RunDMC, Def Jam Recordings and Phat Farm founder Russell Simmons, who happens to be the brother of RunDMC band member Reverend Run). Wasserman also did two custom hats with the Stetson for Hank Williams, Jr. to wear on the Country Music Awards.
Political figures have ranked right up there as well. Mayors receive a hat for his inauguration fashioned by Henry the Hatter. Dennis Archer, Coleman Young, and Kwame Kilpatrick have all worn them to be sworn in. Mayor Duggan, however, is not one to sport a chapeau so has yet to become a frequent customer.
Women’s hats aren’t as big a seller. Most women, Wasserman says, wear men’s hats or more unisex styles.
“When we closed, I was overwhelmed,” he says. “We have a huge following. The easiest thing for me to do would have been to say we’d go down to one store. What a touchstone we’ve been to the city. I said to myself, ‘If it’s the last thing I do, I am going to re-establish Henry the Hater as a City of Detroit business,’ and I did it.”
What Wasserman likes best about the business is meeting his customers.
“The people I see, people from all walks of life. There are more nice people than there are not nice people,” he says “You open up the door and never know who’s going to come in.
For more information, visit henrythehatterdetroit.com.
For more on the history of Henry the Hatter, click here.
Editor’s note: This Small Shops feature is sponsored by Bank of America.