Companies to Watch: BRIM AND CROWN
Hat Shop Owner Is Brimming with Confidence
Richard Littles original plan was to open a mens clothing store.
That was the thought process about seven years ago as he was pondering when and how to make the transition from corporate employee (he had worked for Verizon for many years) to small-business owner. But his research told him there was already enough, if not too many, of those establishments in the Greater Springfield area.
However, it also told him something else: that there was a real need for a hat shop to serve both men and women. There wasnt anything like this, he said, waving his arm toward the front of the Brim and Crown shop on White Street in Springfield.
This need was complemented by what Little could only describe as a passion for hats, which hes been wearing for as long as he can remember. I decided that, if I was going to do anything entrepreneurial, it should be something I love. And I really love hats.
Not only that, but he loves matching people, and their personalities, to hats, from individuals who have never worn one before (a large constituency) to those who wear one practically every day a group he calls absolute hatters.
Not everything has gone exactly according to script for Little, who opened the doors in 2005, but, by and large, hes doing as well as he thought he might when he put the Brim and Crown on the drawing board.
Hes been helped by a moderate surge in the popularity of hats, especially among younger professional men (more on that later), and also by the emergence of the Kentucky Derby party in recent years (hats are a mainstay for such events) as well as the race itself, and even some larger special functions like the recent fund-raising tea for Square One; many attendees bought hats from him for the occasion. Meanwhile, hes been hurt by the recession. Im in the want business, not the need business; people dont really need hats, he explained, adding that, in most respects, this is a luxury item.
But its one that has certainly turned into a sound business opportunity.
Like the optician who adorns his shop with photos of models wearing glasses, Little has his walls covered with pictures of people decked out in all types of hats. Many are actual customers, including some who needed items for the Square One tea and this years Kentucky Derby parties. There are also some models, and even a few actors: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr., in one of the famous scenes from the original Oceans 11, and also Johnny Depp wearing a brown felt model.
Hes not a customer yet, Little said of Depp. But Im working on it.
The current client list includes mostly Springfield-area residents, but there are some from Northern Conn. and others from Boston and other points east. I get a lot of customers from the Boston area, he said. More than a few of them are salespeople out on the road. Theyve heard about me or found my Web site, and they stop by when theyre in the area.
And while clients mailing addresses vary, so too do their wants and, on some occasions, needs. Many women need what Little calls church hats, which are worn regularly on Sundays but also on other special occasions. Meanwhile, more men are deciding that a baseball cap is not the way they want to go, or at least not the only way.
A lot more men are wearing hats now, especially young professionals, said Little. I have a lot of doctors, lawyers, and business people as customers.
Hats will likely never again be as popular as they were decades ago, when men wouldnt leave the house without one, said Little, noting that, contrary to popular opinion, hats were on the way out long before President John F. Kennedy conducted business without one. But they are making something of a comeback.
And there are several reasons why, he said, listing everything from changing fashion trends to a run of gangster movies that bring hats back into focus. Even health issues come into play; indeed, as Baby Boomers age, many of them are hearing their doctors tell them to put something on their head if theyre going out in the sun, said Little.
All this adds up to more of that aforementioned matching of people to hats, he continued, adding that quite a bit goes into this process, from the clients build to the colors they prefer to wear, to the image theyre trying to project.
A hat has to fit someones personality because, while everyone can wear a hat, no one can really wear every hat, said Little, who uses the word hatitude to describe those who make a proper match.
Those visiting the Brim and Crown will find ample opportunities to create a match, with a wide variety of selections on both the mens and womens sides of the store, and a host of well-known brands to choose from, including Stetson, Biltmore, Dobbs, Bailey, and Makins for men, and Toucan, Betmar, Ellie, and Christine Moore for women.
With any luck, this selection coupled with all those trends, from Derby parties to men dressing up more will create more absolute hatters.