Last summer, WNPR reporter Diane Orson took a trip back in time to New Haven of the 1950s. Downtown had been transformed for the filming of the new Indiana Jones movie. Classic cars lined the streets, groups of women were decked out in vintage clothes, and pricey boutiques were changed into old-fashioned storefronts. But, as she found â€“ one local business didnâ€™t need a makeover. For the last 100 years theyâ€™ve been selling stylish menâ€™s hats.
Quick! Picture it! Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones thereâ€™s the trademark bullwhip, leather jacket, fear of snakes, and the hat. A classic dark brown, wide brimmed fedora, pinch in the crown, tapered down in the front and back. That look may harken back to 1940s Hollywood, but Indyâ€™s hat is a modern-day icon, and thousands of fans are buying their Indy hats from one Connecticut shop.
"Welcome to DelMonico Hatter in New Haven."
Its like a step back in time.
"We have an entire row of fur felt fedoras in many different sizes, styles and shapes. Fedoras are the bread and butter of the menâ€™s hat business."
DelMonico Hatter is an old-fashioned menâ€™s hat store with dozens of fedoras, Italian caps, westerns, straw boaters, and Greek fisherman caps piled high on shelves. Owner Ernest DelMonico says right now, Indiana Jones fedoras are sailing out the door.
"Weâ€™re selling a wool felt one, and weâ€™re selling the fur felt one which is $112 and then we do have in our store the collectorâ€™s edition of the Indiana Jones hat, itâ€™s a beaver felt hat and its $500".
Business hasnâ€™t always been as brisk. DelMonico Hatters was founded in 1908 by the first Ernest DelMonico. His son, Joseph ran the shop for 70 years at a time when no self-respecting man would walk out onto the street bareheaded. Third generation owner Ernest DelMonico says hats identified a manâ€™s social status.
"During the 50s, when there were major employers in New Haven. Part of their executive training program was to actually come into DelMonico and buy a new hat. That was part of their training."
Then, legend has it, the headwear industry took a plunge after president-elect John F. Kennedy appeared for his inauguration hatless. Hat sellers point to that moment as the start of a bare-headed era, though theyâ€™ll tell you that photos show Kennedy wearing a silk top hat most of that cold January day in 1961. But it was about that time when the menâ€™sâ€™ hat industry began to decline. Ernest took over Del Monico Hatters in 2001 and business was marginal, at best.
"And as one thought, I put in on the internet and the internet was really the item that made the business."
Though he wonâ€™t reveal exact figures, Ernest DelMonico says his hat business is now six times what it was five years ago, 80% of that is from online sales.
"Itâ€™s a niche market."
Paula Pierce is owner of HostingConnecticut, a website development company. She says small businesses that focus on specialized items or services do very well on the internet because they can reach out to a larger audience.
"Everybody doesnâ€™t wear a hat like they did in 1950. So youâ€™ve got to find those people who want to wear hats and they may not be in New Haven or Connecticut. A lot are going to be outside that region."
And for some customers in New England, a trip to DelMonicoâ€™s is better than the web. One recent Saturday, shoppers walked around boxes packed with Indiana Jones fedoras to be shipped across the country. Customer Brian Low is standing in front of a full-length mirror wearing an eight-quarter-style newsboy cap..
"I drive two hours from Worcester, Massahusetts to come down to this specific store. Iâ€™ve ordered online from them before, and now the spring selections in so its time for me to get my lightweight hats for the summer.
Cut ten: I needed a hat going on a cruise and I have difficulties because I have a large head."
Dick Leary came here from Meriden.
"With my lack of hair itâ€™s a good idea to keep it out of the sun and so forth, so I will use this as I play golf as well."
While many retailers in New Haven have closed down in recent years under the pressure of rising costs - owner Ernest DelMonico says the downtown storefront gives his business credibility with online customers.
"There are hat sellers out that that do not have a retail store. Theyâ€™re really a couple of people in a garage that are just buying hats and then shipping them as they get an order where we actually have an inventory. We know what the hats look like on people and weâ€™ve been here for hundred years."
And though his old pants may not fit, that Indy fedora still looks pretty good on Harrison Ford.
See more pitcures of Del Monico's hats at WNPR's Flickr Site.