Derrek Bell leans forward and places his elbows on the counter, turning the hat he is holding upside down to expose the price tag attached to the inside. He holds it gently, careful not to pinch it or bend it out of shape. The Panama hat has travelled all the way from Cuenca in Ecuador, where it was manufactured, to a factory in Alessandria, Italy, where it was shaped and tagged with a little navy label that spelled “Borsalino” in a cursive gold font. It is now on a rack at The Hat Guys, an upscale hat shop in downtown Oakland that has served famous heads for over two decades.
Bell has worked here as a salesman for seven years. “Take a look at this,” he says, pointing at the price tag. The Borsalino name puts the hat’s price at $1,200. It is one of the most expensive hats in the store.
The Hat Guys built its reputation as an upscale hat store soon after it opened its doors in 1988, says owner Ken Oranje. With an inventory of 25,000 hats with over 25 different brands, it is one of the largest hat stores on the West Coast today. But despite the wide variety available, the design that has best withstood the changes in styles and fashion and remains the most popular today is the fedora, says Oranje. “Right now, it’s a fedora with a smaller brim,” he says, pointing to the hat he is wearing which has a “stingy” brim.
The store gets customers from across the country, partly because of its large selection, and partly because of the additional services it provides. Most hat stores stopped cleaning and blocking (or reshaping) hats years ago, and The Hat Guys is one of a handful of stores in the U.S. that still helps restore older hats. But while it has a wide customer base geographically, the customers are mostly adults. “Young kids, they usually start with cheaper hats from places like Wal-mart,” Oranje says. “When they want a real hat, they come to us.”
Oranje has worked at the store for eleven years, and has been the sole owner for four. He took the business over from his father and his father’s partner when they retired. His father, Corrie Oranje, stumbled into the hat business by accident. For years, he worked as a salesman at a clothing store called Smiths in San Francisco. When Smiths went out of business, he was asked to assist the store in selling off the hats that remained in storage at the Oakland location. But when the senior Oranje saw the demand for the fast depleting inventory of hats, he decided to go into business with his high school friend, Rusty Watson.
As salesmen, their expertise was limited to retail. The two hat guys began building their inventory by calling up companies and asking for a “palette” – a mix and match selection of roughly 2,000 hats that the manufacturers would ship to the store in Oakland. They got good deals while making the purchases because most hats in the palette were the ones manufacturers were trying to get rid of. “It was hard for them to get started,” says Ken Oranje. “With a palette, you don’t really know what you’re getting, and they didn’t have the nice hats we do now.” But soon enough they had learned the ropes, and began selectively buying hats from manufacturers.
Over the years, the Hat Guys have sold to celebrity clients and movie producers. As a testament to their clientele, a large number of framed, autographed photos are stacked all the way to the ceiling across one wall of the store, including those of former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown and musicians John Lee Hooker Jr. and Carlos Santana. Across the store, movie posters featuring celebrities in upscale fedoras, top hats, and Westerns line walls that are not carrying hat racks.
“We sold hats for Titanic, and Absolute Power,” Oranje says. “But we don’t get any credit for that. For your name to be on the screen, you have to pay a lot of money.” For most movies, the hats are ordered in bulk by the production’s costumers, right, and the store mails the hats to the desired locations.
Like all upscale stores in the region, The Hat Guys has suffered because of the recession. Ken Oranje calls the situation he is in a “double negative” – the price of hats has gone up because of the rising cost of fur and wool, and the labor involved in producing the woven straw hats, while the economy has gone down. “People are going to other places sometimes to get cheaper hats,” he says.
But the store has tried not to change its inventory too much to reflect the demand for cheaper hats. It cannot trade in higher sales for its reputation as an upscale store; a reputation that allows it to operate in a niche with virtually no strong competition in the Bay Area. Balancing the number of cheap and expensive hats the store carries has become quite a challenge. “We do have less expensive hats – sometimes, instead of a $250 hat, we sell a $50 hat. But you know, we can’t have $10 hats,” Oranje says.
And things are beginning to look up. The store’s location has attracted a lot of impulsive buyers. Travelers exiting from the 19th Street BART station come across the store and often glance in or return to buy a hat they spotted.
Cannabis consumers have been another unexpected source of income. Medical marijuana prescriptions have to be renewed annually, and people often come in from different parts of California to visit the doctor across the street or purchase the cannabis from a store nearby in the Oaksterdam area. “They’ll drive up from Sacremento to do that, and they’ll see the hat store and come in,” Oranje says. Often, they end up making a purchase on the spot, or returning later to do so.
Ken Oranje says he is hopeful about the store’s prospects because its products are unique. “A hat is the last thing you put on, it’s the first thing that’s noticed,” says Corrie Oranje, who still works at the store occasionally. “There is a hat for every head.”