Has anyone informed you lately of the incredible artistry and intricate weaving that goes into the making of a very fine Panama hat (which, of course, everyone knows is not made in Panama, but in Ecuador)? Or apprised you of the fact that the jungle-straw “jipijapa” is the only plant material that can be used in the creation of a true Panama? Or that the best Panama hats can take up to eight weeks to hand-weave? Or that the Ecuadorian village of Monte Cristi makes the most desirable Panamas in the world? How about the surprising detail that cashmere and beaver go into the making of the superior felt found in a velvety $7,500 Stetson? Perhaps you were also unaware that Lyndon Johnson has become a style arbiter among young Beau Brummells with the return of his signature western hat, the “Open Road.”
Abe Cortez knows all these things and more — much more. Along with his wife Myrna (named after the movie actress Myrna Loy), Cortez oversees the venerable Paris Hatters, in business since 1917. If it fits on a man’s head, Abe Cortez can handle it. Born with the salesman’s gift of charm, conviction, and conversation, Abe could sell a Fez to an Irishman, a sombrero to an Eskimo, maybe even a yarmulke to a sheik. A big Texas Ten Gallon tip o’ the hat to a great San Antonio institution and to the family that has insured its success for more than 92 years.
“You gotta love selling hats! Hats are a big deal. A good hat is a status symbol, it’s empowering. It’s an interesting business, too; you just never know who’s going to walk in that door. The original Paris Hatters was started 92 years ago in the now demolished block of Market and Alamo, across the river from Casa Rio restaurant, right where the Chamber of Commerce Building stands. Dad moved from the family farm in Shiner, Texas, with his four bothers. They started selling used clothing — $3 suits and used hats. One brother took over the clothing end, another started selling cars, and Dad ended up with the hat line.
“My mother was from an old ranching family down around Floresville, the Keilman’s, and when she married Dad she opened her own ladies’ hat store next door, ‘The Carol Ann Hat Shop.’ Millinery fell from being a once-thriving profession to basically nonexistent, but men’s hats have pretty much stayed the course.
“They named the store ‘Paris’ because in their mind everything fashionable and classy came from Paris. People think it was a family name, but it was really just enterprising advertising.
“Dad used to tell me when he started in this business there were 21 hat stores in downtown San Antonio! We’re still the longest, continually operated family business still left in downtown. I’m here seven days a week. There’s no secret to making money — you just show up and go to work. And I don’t even think of it as work. Friends stop by, they hang out, we’re kind of a gathering place. People like to deal with the owner. But you can’t do this if you don’t love selling hats.
“The New York Times did an article on us 10 years ago, and the writer said the most modern thing in Abe’s store was the telephone. We don’t even have a computer. I still use the old 1917 hand-crank cash register — better than new!”
“We sell over 800-dozen hats a year. Every felt hat has a weighting. On the inside band you’ll see an X-rating. That doesn’t mean ‘adults only’ — it tells you the degree of the felt quality: Four-X, six-X — all the way to a thousand-X which is incredibly light, resilient, pliable, and soft as a lamb’s ear. You have to fit a hat to a person. Other places may sell hats, but we make them fit. Weight, height and shoulder length are important in choosing a hat that’s right for you. We’ll shape it, trim it, lower the crown, and you’ll feel comfortable in it.
“We have all the old, original oak blocks here in the store that we use to shape and mold a hat to fit your head. You can’t buy them anymore; they’re not made anywhere.
“I made three hats for the movie Lonesome Dove, and someone will always come in and say, I want the ‘Woodrow Call,’ but in a different color, or a different crease, or a slightly different brim — I can do that in about 20 minutes.
“Ross Perot stopped by when his daughter was being presented as a debutante during Fiesta. He was looking at several nice Panamas, and he held up a $200 one and said, ‘I’ll give ya $150 for it.’ I looked at him surprised and said, ‘Mr. Perot, you’re the billionaire, why are you hammering on the poor hat man?’ He just grinned and said, ‘Son, that’s why I’m a businessman.’
“We sent nine hats to Buckingham Palace when Lone Star Beer first started being marketed in England. We got back an interesting picture of Prince Charles and Prince Andrew wearing them around the Palace. ... I even got to have a limited audience with Pope John Paul when he came to San Antonio in 1987, and I presented him with a Stetson.
“Hollywood and pop culture have an enormous influence on what the current hat style dictates. You can’t overstate it. Already we’re seeing an increase in demand for top hats because of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter in the new version of Alice In Wonderland. Dwight Yoakam was in town filming The Newton Boys one summer and he came in with Matthew McConaughey and Skeet Ulrich to get out of the heat, and a little bit later in walked Tommy Lee Jones and his wife, and they were all just hanging out along this wall here shooting the breeze. I’ll never forget the tourist couple that wandered in and their eyes practically fell out of their heads. I think they must have felt they’d stepped into some Hollywood Alternate Universe.
“Back when the Alamodome first opened, the fight promoter Don King came in looking for a hat for his birthday. He said, ‘Abe, I want a hat to match my personality.’ So I showed him some terrific hats, and finally he looked at me confused and said, ‘But what are we going to do about my hair?’ And I jokingly said, ‘Well, I guess we can just cut off the top and you can slide it down.’ His eyes immediately lit up: ‘Let’s do it!’ I ended up cutting the top off a $750 hat and Mr. King walked out of here happy as a lark.
“Of course, not everyone that walks in the store is always a sheer delight. I’ll put it this way — if Faye Dunaway doesn’t revisit us for a long, long time, that’ll be OK, too.
“Downtown is a different breed of cat now. Either you do extremely well or you don’t make it at all. When the City Triparty came in back in the late ’80s and narrowed Houston Street, it took about a year after they’d left and one by one all the stores on Houston began closing. There was no parking, no bus lane. People gave up and went elsewhere. I think the turning point was when they put in the Hard Rock Café down on the river, followed by the now closed Planet Hollywood — it brought in an influx of even more younger tourists to downtown. Was it good for everybody? Maybe not, but we didn’t die on the vine, either.
“This part of town has seen some really colorful inhabitants. I own the building on Broadway across from the Travelers Hotel where the old ‘Frisky A-Go-Go’ discothèque used to be. In our original building, Red Berry, the state senator, used to run a gambling hall upstairs. ‘Frenchie’s Black Cat Lounge’ was next door. The first Church’s fried chicken was on our block, the first Don’s and Ben’s Liquor store was there, Alamo Piano, Lucchese’s original boot shop — the whole area is vanished now, demolished for HemisFair and the river extension.
“San Antonio’s still a big, little town. If you’re in business here, more than likely, whether we’re close friends or not, I’ll know who you are. Not true in Dallas or Houston. It’s a slower pace here. And also the blending of the German and Mexican cultures here has had a huge influence. Where else do Anglo families name their kids ‘Blanca,’ ‘Cuatro,’ or ‘Terrelita’?’ My daughter, Alexandra, wants to eventually take over running the store and I’m tickled to death about it. Retail is definitely in the blood … but the main thing is, you gotta love selling hats!” •
The Great Eccentrics of San Antonio runs the second week of every month. Check out volumes I-X online at sacurrent.com!