Fate Of Henry's Hattery Tied To Detroit Automakers

Henry the Hatter, a men's hat store in Detroit, has survived for 116 years. But as the automobile industry's woes cause ripples throughout the city's economy, this year is shaping up to be the store's toughest.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. A tip of the hat now to a city struggling to survive. It's Detroit, which has the worst unemployment rate of any big city in the country. We learned just a few days ago that the jobless rate there hit 22 percent.

What sets this town apart from its metropolitan counterparts, of course, is the troubles of the auto industry. And those troubles ripple far beyond the factory floor, as NPR's Don Gonyea discovered during a visit to one Motown institution last week.

DON GONYEA: The storefront is at 1307 Broadway in downtown Detroit, on a block in the shadow of General Motors' world headquarters. Vintage red neon spells out the name in script: Henry the Hatter. Paul Wasserman is the owner and president.

Mr. PAUL WASSERMAN (Owner, President, Henry the Hatter): Henry the Hatter is an exclusive men's hat store that's been in business since 1893, which would make it 116 years and counting.

GONYEA: Wasserman is 61. His late father, Seymour, owned the store before him. When I walked into the shop, I realized I'd been there before, and Wasserman had the proof in an old photo album.

Mr. WASSERMAN: He's around, he's - and there you are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: I remember that jacket, look at that hair.

The photo was from the store's 100th anniversary, which I covered way back when I was NPR's Detroit bureau. And I recall wondering then, 16 years ago, how the place managed to survive, and I wonder the same thing now.

It is one of the few remaining businesses on a nearly desolate downtown street in an economy Wasserman calls the worst he's seen.

Mr. WASSERMAN: Yet every day, I get up and come to work, and I have to proceed like life is more or less normal.

GONYEA: And we're standing here in the store, and we can hear activity around us.

Mr. WASSERMAN: As we speak. There are customers. They're really - these are not ploys. These are live customers, I'm happy to say.

GONYEA: One of those customers is 60-year-old Mack Bridgeport(ph), a retired assembly line worker at Chrysler. He says he's hoping the car companies get the help from the government they are asking for. He's got a lot riding on it.

Mr. MACK BRIDGEPORT (Retired Auto Worker, Detroit, Michigan): I don't want them to mess with my retirement. You know, I'm getting full benefits.

GONYEA: Meanwhile, Wasserman says he has held on to a core group of loyal customers like Bridgeport, but he has had to close one of his three area stores.

Mr. WASSERMAN: And we'll be leaner and meaner, and you know, we won't be asking the White House for any bailout money.

GONYEA: Leaner and meaner. You sound like you're using the same language as the car companies.

Mr. WASSERMAN: Yeah, I have to. You have to be paying attention to what's going on here because what happens to the auto companies happens to everybody in Detroit. It's just that kind of economy.

GONYEA: In more than a century, Henry the Hatter has survived a depression and successive recessions. Through it all, there was always an auto industry everyone knew would recover. This time around, that's far from certain. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Detroit.

Don Gonyea

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