Designer Hat Store Ignites A New Flame In Harlem


By Taryn Finley

Marc Williamson calls himself a hat romanticist.

“The universe brought me to the hat game and the hat game to me,” he says.

After more than 20 years of rising through the ranks to co-owner of J.J. Hat Center on 32nd Street and Fifth Avenue, he opened the FlameKeepers Hat Club in Harlem in August.

The shop sits on the corner of 121st Street and Saint Nicholas Avenue near Restaurant Row. On a recent Saturday, post-brunch customers start trickling in around 1, impressed by the Charlie Chapman bowlers, the Al Pacino homburgs and fedoras of varying colors and brim widths.

Despite the neighborhood’s reputation for formal hats dating to before the 1920’s, designer hat shops have become rare uptown. In a sea of baseball caps, bucket hats and beanie stands, FlameKeepers Hat Club is one of three designer hat shops uptown and the only one to import quality hats.

“I wanted to be a part of the renaissance going on here,” Williamson says, referring to new start-ups in Harlem. He leans on his counter wearing a black, wide-brimmed fedora with an orange band that complements his attire.

Williamson’s hundreds of hats in stock include imports from Italy, Germany, Ireland, the Czech Republic and France. Caps range from $35 to $125 and more formal hats from $65 to $300.

Williamson, 44, who lives in Woodside, Queens, also looked at the Lower East Side and Brooklyn when considering locations, but felt that “Harlem was the place for me to plant my flag.” Two places on Lenox Avenue turned him down, but when a vacant storefront on West 121st Street opened up, he was happy to secure it.

Although Williamson declined to disclose any financial details, including how much rent he pays for his 700-square-foot shop, John McGuinness, licensed real estate agent for Harlem Properties, says storefronts in this area usually range from $35 to $110 per square foot.

“It’s all based on location,” McGuinness says. A good deal for a ground level storefront, he says, is around $70 per square foot, or approximately $50,000 per year.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about half of all new businesses survive past the first five years and only a third beyond 10. Williamson didn’t disclose how long it would take him to turn a profit on his investment, but he is hopeful. Although he hasn’t initiated a marketing campaign, word of mouth and his media mentions on local websites have caught shoppers’ attention.

“It’s about time,” says Curtis Lovelace, looking at a black leather cap. His barber told him about the new shop. Lovelace, who moved to Harlem in the 1970’s, says he’s never seen an uptown hat shop like FlameKeepers.

Gordon Govens, 51, and Kenneth Appold, 49, have traveled an hour from Princeton after reading about the shop. “If I need a hat, you have to come into the city,” Appold says. “The last one I bought was in midtown so I’m really happy to know about this store.”

Even residents and passers-by who can’t pay Williamson’s prices have welcomed the new addition to the neighborhood.

“When I get money I’m coming back here,” yells a young man pushing a stroller past the door. Williamson grins.

“When you talk about hats, it’s not a fashion thing, it’s a cultural thing,” says Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Association. She credits musician Pharrell Williams’ signature hat as an example of the hat trend, although she says people wear them for more special occasions than for casual wear.

“There’s a fair demand up here,” Williamson says. “But also I think the business will be driven from a hat shop actually being up here.”

In the coming weeks, he plans to hire an industrial steamer for free hat cleanings — even for hats he doesn’t sell. He will also launching an e-commerce section of the store’s website this month.

(Photo by Taryn Finley)

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