You don’t know Detroit history until you’ve heard of Henry the Hatter (HTH), a long-standing retail presence in the city since 1893.
Henry the Hatter is a reminder of the unwavering spirit of small, privately owned businesses. The resilient “hustling” of downtown tenants proves that while Detroit is on the rise, there are some that never fell.
We’re brimming with excitement to share this exclusive interview with Paul Wasserman the owner of HTH and a family man who tips his hat to the history of Detroit and his company.
Hat’s Off to You
Upon entering the store, friendly employees immediately welcome you, ready to pull more than a rabbit from a hat; they provide expert knowledge on the fit and form of their products.
“We’ve been a downtown Detroit business since 1893 and we’re the oldest hat store in the United States by one year,” said Paul Wasserman, the owner of Henry the Hatter.
In that time, HTH has made a name for itself, creating a reputation of high-end quality products that transcend a typical retail experience. The highly trained salespeople use their knowledge of trends and styles to give each customer a perfect fit.
Wasserman and I began chatting about the history of HTH: how they came to be and how they’ve adapted throughout the years:
“We’ve always been in this area; this is our third incarnation,” Wasserman began. “The first store was where Compuware’s parking is now and I found a picture of it on the Internet.”
Paul pulled an old picture from the drawer of his desk.
“It was in a New York Gallery and I was able to pry it from them; this is what the original store looked like.”
Wasserman laughed, “A friend of mine made a joke, saying ‘Looks like you’re still using the same hats!’”
Wasserman continued explaining the origins of the store:
“Henry the Hatter was in that location for 40 years; it was just a galleria-type setting and they demolished it in the mid-30s to build Crowley’s. Our second store is where the Z Lot is now. My dad, having bought this business in 1948, had to move from the Z Lot, to this location on Broadway Street. I jokingly tell people, ‘this is our new store; we’ve been here since 1952.’”
He recounted the story of the store:
“Henry the Hatter was mostly a company who repaired silk hats, the fashion of the day, and the original owner, Henry Komrofsky, never knew if the business was going to succeed. As a consequence, he always kept a part-time job. He was on the Boxing Commission, the Board of Education, and was the drummer in the Masonic Temple band.
We have old pictures of boxers and actors: Henry knew the boxers and his junior partner, Gus Newman, knew all the actors. People come in today and still spend time looking at the pictures; I wouldn’t part with them for anything.
Henry had no idea that the store would make it, let alone, live to be 123 years old,” Wasserman added.
In 1948, Wasserman’s father, Seymour Wasserman, purchased the store with his friend and partner, Murray Appleby. As a native New Yorker, he tells the story of how his father got into the hat business, eventually purchasing Henry the Hatter.
“My father didn’t know a thing about Detroit. He had a store, and it was an accident how he got in the hat business altogether. His first store was on the upper-East side of New York and the offer was made to my dad that ‘you can have the store if you take it over and pay the debt to me.’
After the war, he came back and wanted to expand, and there was nowhere to go in New York, so he heard about the opportunity in Detroit.”
The “opportunity in Detroit” was after Henry Komrofsky’s death in 1941, when his partner Gus Newman put the store up for sale, according to their website.
“My dad took a train from Grand Central Station in New York to the train station on Michigan Avenue in Detroit. There were two Henry the Hatter locations at the time. My dad told me the story that he got off at the train station, got in a cab and instead of giving the address, he told the cab driver, ‘take me to Henry the Hatter,’ and the cab driver’s answer was, ‘which one.’ My dad liked that answer and he bought the business on the spot.”
I asked Paul what it was like to move from New York to Detroit.
“I was an infant, my mom was pregnant with my sister and the last thing she wanted to hear in life was that she was moving from New York to Detroit. It worked out really well and my parents ended up having a wonderful life here.”
I then asked Wasserman how he came to own the family business:
“I started doing it seriously in the 70s,” he began, “and as a child, any day I had off from school I would get up early and go to work with my dad.
I loved it and in my heart of hearts I knew I would wind up owning the store. My dad was a wonderful teacher and one of the main reasons that we’re still here today is because he taught me as well as he did.
I believe there is a quote by Woody Allen that says, ‘90% of life is just showing up,’ and as a small business owner that’s what you do: you show up. And you listen to your customers and respond. Sometimes you fly by the seat of your pants. Over time, evidently, we’ve done something right because we’re still here,” he reflected.
“What I’ve been able to do is to glean knowledge from my vendors and I buy everywhere around the world. We try to put an emphasis on quality. High quality and high-end.”
When I asked him about his most popular hat style, he responded:
“I have two separate businesses happening now: I have the traditionalists, who prefer Fedoras and the music and entertainment styles with the smaller and trendy brands. Music and entertainment has given us a whole new life and side to the business. We’re an amalgamation of each of those businesses and we are very true to both of them,” he concludes.
Yet there’s something to be said for the businesses that have stood the test of time: Stores like Henry the Hatter provide an encouraging lesson of perseverance and pride, one that will continue to inspire the revitalization of Detroit.
You can stop by Henry the Hatter every Monday – Saturday from 9:30 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Located on 1307 Broadway St., be sure to check out Detroit’s oldest hat retailer and browse through the history of the store.