By Brian Kirkpatrick
June 3, 2021
Many San Antonio businesses that could not adjust their operations to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have failed.
But one of the city's oldest businesses stuck with what it knows best — hats and customer service — and survived long enough to reopen. Its customers have included presidents, royalty and entertainers.
Abe Cortez, the owner of Paris Hatters, is recovering from a stroke. But he, his wife and co-owner, Myrna Cortez, and store manager and daughter, Alex Sledge, come into the store seven days a week to serve customers.
His business card reads “Abe The Hatter.”
Abe’s father and brother founded the family business in 1917. He has worked there most of his life.
The business has survived wars, economic downturns and the current pandemic. Their website reports they will sell 11,000 hats in a good year. Prices range from $35 to $5,800 depending on style and material.
Myrna said COVID-19 did force the store to close for six weeks. The business did get some government assistance to pay workers, but relied a lot on its own funds to make it through.
“We rode it out, just like everybody. We have been around long enough to know that you have to know that you have to save up for a rainy day. We were well prepared," she said.
They do have a website for browsing and they can take phone orders and ship out hats but they prefer you come through their front door on Broadway Street, not far from the Alamo
Some transactions are not rung up on a computerized register. Store manager Alex grabs the crank on a register that was around when Woodrow Wilson was in the White House.
“We use it for cash transactions. I think Abe said it’s a 1912 model, so we’ve had it pretty much since we opened," she said.
Store employee Billy Mata is proud to call himself a hatter.
“Well, a hatter is basically someone who can construct a hat from scratch to just plain shaping and creasing hats and even repairing sweatbands, linings, and outside bands as well," he said.
Paris Hatters does not build hats, it sells a a lot of Stetsons, Panamas, and has some Italian brands and it has built a solid reputation among locals and tourists for its fitting, shaping and cleaning services.
When it comes to fitting, it’s not just your head size that counts. Your height and weight matter when it comes to a good fit. Taller and slender men, for example, should not have a hat with a crown that is too tall. Shorter, heavier men, should not have a hat brim that is too wide. Paris Hatters say any brim size works for a woman.
Patricia Paige is among the loyal customers that keep coming back. She brought in her husband’s hat to be cleaned.
“Out of all the hat businesses in San Antonio, I will always come back here because I know the quality I’m going to get here," she said. "So my dad, my husband, my grandfather, they buy their hats here. We come and get them conditioned here.”
Paris Hatters has also made a reputation among famous clients, including four late presidents and members of the British royal family. Myrna said they even made a cowboy hat for a saint.
“Regardless of age, everyone knows who Pope John Paul was and I would have to say he’s the most famous person we fitted because he’s now a saint," she said.
The hat was a gift to the pope from Texas archbishops when he visited San Antonio in September 1987 and conducted an outdoor Mass that attracted 350,000 people.
Actors Tommy Lee Jones and Matt Damon have filmed roles while wearing Paris shaped cowboy hats. Singer Bob Dylan came in the shop last year and purchased seven hats. Late opera star Luciano Pavarotti came by once.
Country singer Dwight Yoakum comes in on a regular basis and is a store favorite
Yoakum's hats are steamed into a “bull rider shape." Myrna says there are all kinds of cowboy hat shapes.
“Sometimes they want to have a horseshoe shape, which is very unique and different. We do that here. Sometimes they want to do an El Paso shape, which is a flat, stick to the crown, like Eastwood use to wear,” said Myrna.
That's movie star and director Clint Eastwood, who wore an El Paso in a series of Italian made or "spaghetti western" movies.
Other famous clients have included Johnny and June Cash, Cesar Milan, Merle Haggard, Kid Rock, Sammy Davis, Jr., B.B. King, Shaquille O'Neal, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Michael McDonald, Paul McCartney, Princess Astrid of Belgium, Rachel Zoe, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Smits, Waylon Jennings, Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez, boxing promoter Don King, Phil Jackson, Chris Isaak, James Taylor, Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Greg Norman, Johnathan Winters, President Vincente Fox of Mexico, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain, and Univision host Don Francisco.
Abe "The Hatter" said he loves his work
“'Cause you never know who you’re going to see. Like today, you might get a celebrity, might just get a normal guy, but you never know. That’s why you have to be here. I’m always here when the doors open,” Cortez said.
Here are some hat care tips from Paris Hatters:
Hats should be stored upside down on a clean surface or in a box to protect their shape.
Surface dirt can be removed from a straw hat with a clean damp cloth. Surface dirt can be removed from a fur felt hat with a soft brush, starting on the left side of the hat and brushing counter-clockwise toward the back. The process will need to be repeated until the desired effect is reached.
Store hats away from stoves, radiators, lamps and car windows since heat can damage them.
A western felt hat can be dried by by turning down the sweatband and standing it on the sweatband to dry. Don't rest the hat on its brim when it's wet.
Clean water and grease spots on a fur felt hat with baby powder or cornstarch. Avoid liquid cleaners.
Hold your hat at the brim, in the front and back, when removing. Avoid handling the crown as much as possible.