Did you know that nationwide, there are only twenty professional hatters? This was something I filed under “Things I Learned” last December when I was preparing for my trip to Philadelphia. Only twenty.
I am always in awe of people that I meet who are true craftspeople. And we’re lucky enough to have two such people who are professional hatters living in Milwaukee and running a small business called “The Brass Rooster” along with “The Hen House” right next door (conveniently connected so you don’t have to go outside to go from one to the other). I had heard about this place since moving to Milwaukee, and I know that it is the favorite establishment of an artist friend who lives a couple of blocks down. I had always meant to go there, but never found the time. It was not until my trip in December that I decided that I needed a new hat and I’d go check the place out.
I walked in and immediately felt like I was taken back to a time long before I was born, and yet the place felt like home to me. Louis Armstrong was playing on a phonograph (yes, I said phonograph), and it was decorated as you’d expect. Old barber’s chair to one side, an old upright piano at the entry . . . and hats. Lots and lots of hats.
Despite there being such a huge selection, they helped me find a hat in pretty good time (truth be told, the first one they put on me was one of the ones I bought, but I looked at several). Then I turned around and saw the rack with other things such as good old fashioned shaving soaps and brushes and BOW TIES!
Now, I’ve never been a bow tie wearer. I’ve never seen myself in one and, frankly, I’m not sure I’d ever become one. But Eli has been wanting a bow tie for some time. He’s really been into “Doctor Who” for the last few months and, as he says, “Bow ties are cool!”
I knew I had to take a trip with Eli to this place and find a bow tie for him.
So why am I talking about all of this? I’m getting there. . . really.
This past Friday, Eli and Brenna had the day off from school. TJ (Or, as we call him, “TEEJ”) goes to daycare, and the other three boys still had school. I had work to do, but I thought that Friday would be a good time to take Eli to go pick out a bow tie. He had no idea what I had in mind. I simply told him I’d be taking him somewhere. And then I thought that I should take both the kids out to lunch first. So, in short, I shirked all my ServerPress duties for the afternoon (I made it up Friday night. Can only get away with that for so long) and made an afternoon with just the two (something I don’t get to do too often, these days).
We had lunch and then hit the road for the hatter, still with the kids having no real idea what we were doing.
When we got there and walked in, Eli’s first comment to me was, “Dad, WHY have you not brought me here before?”
The Not So Mad Hatter
As a parent, one of the first things you’ll judge a person upon is how well they treat your kids. I think it’s a natural instinct. If you treat my kids poorly, ignore them, or act like they are anything “other,” I will pretty much dislike you immediately. It’s not something we can control. Our kids are an extension of us and, as such, we are very aware of how they are being treated.
Eli was immediately taken with all the hats, until I turned him around and showed him the bow tie rack.
At this point, the owner, who was working on something came out from behind the counter. I explained to him that Eli was a Doctor Who fan and wanted a bow tie. At that point, Eli became the customer and the owner knew his “Who.” They exchanged fist bumps and he explained how bow ties worked. He not only treated Eli as a customer, but he treated him as an adult. I couldn’t have been happier. He spent time with Eli showing him how to tie the tie. And then, he went and, as had been done with me on my first visit, found him a hat right off the bat, put it on him and the combo looked so good, I just couldn’t resist.
Of course, Brenna, being five years old, wanted to get a hat for herself. And me, being the daddy, always wanting to be fair, told her we could go next door and see what they had. I was not sure if they would have anything her size, but thought I’d try anyway. So, we went next door and started looking.
The owners of the shops are a husband and wife team. He runs the men’s side and she, the women’s. There were three people behind the counter when we got in there and we were immediately greeted by them all. I explained what we were doing and one of the women came from behind and immediately found a hat to put on Brenna. It was REALLY cute. But Brenna, as she so often does, had other ideas. She saw a pink hat with a crystal on it. Now, not being a hat expert, I am not sure what kind of hat it was, but she tried it on and, yes, looked adorable. Still, the three women from behind the counter found hat after hat to put on Brenna. Each and every one was cute in its own way. But, Brenna being Brenna, after humoring them for about 10 minutes, stated that she wanted that first pink one that she tried on.
The problem was that it was too big. The owner said she could size it for Brenna and when I said that we’d have to come back for it in a couple of days, she corrected me and said she could do it right away; would only take a few minutes. That’s what happens when you go to an expert!
During that time, we chatted a bit. She got Brenna’s hat fitted and then decided she needed to do Eli’s as well. 10 minutes later and he was all set. During that time, Eli kept talking about how much he LOVED that shop and how cool it was. The owner told him that when he turned 12 he could apprentice there. Don’t think for a second that he didn’t latch on to that!
On the way home, Eli brought up to me how nice it was to be treated so well. He mentioned how he likes going to small businesses because, as he said, “It’s nice to be treated like a person and to be face to face with actual people.” We had a good conversation about how, even though life is becoming more and more digital, it’s always important to hang onto that human experience of actually being around or with someone and that having experiences like this just prove the point. We talked about how important it is to support small businesses and while there will always be the “big box” places which are great for saving money, the need for the small shops is still there because you’re paying for a true skill and you’re paying for an experience.
To be honest, I don’t know if the money we paid was more or comparable to what we would have spent in a big department store, but what I do know is that the value we got between the goods and the experience far surpassed any money we might have saved had we gone somewhere else.