On September 2, 1945, when the Japanese surrendered to General Douglas MacArthur on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, there were huge victory celebrations across the country (Seattle above).
It was the end of WWII, and Americans saw it as the triumph of democracy over fascism and good over evil. The nation was ready to party on one of the most important of days in American history. My parents were excited and wanted me, their 7-year-old son, to see and feel its importance too, so late that afternoon we hopped a bus to join the melee in downtown Seattle. My blurred memory of the scene is chaotic. The streets were a teeming, noisy, confetti-filled sea of humanity, and I remember watching it all from under the awning in front of Byrnie Utz Hats, Seattle’s iconic purveyor of men’s hats.
In the years since that night, I’ve changed a lot, but Byrnie Utz Hats managed to stay pretty much the same. The steel-gray art-deco storefront looks exactly as it did then–familiar but not flashy – and it still occupies the same space at 310 Union Street with its original Borsalino/Stetson signage and tiger-oak interior furnishings. Byrnie Utz Hats was only 4 years older than I was on that night in 1945.
Two weeks ago, after 84 years, Byrnie Utz closed its door for the last time. I didn’t know Byrnie or his successor, Paul Ferry, so it’s reasonable to ask why I’m upset or think the closing of a men’s hat store in downtown Seattle is worth noting. I don’t wear hats, and until two weeks ago I had never been in the store, but after 84 years I think Byrnie Utz Hats deserves a proper eulogy.
When I returned to Seattle after years away, I was surprised to see Byrnie’s right where it was when I left – rare in these days of retail turnover. But, I was saddened when I recently heard it was closing, marking the end of an 84-year cycle and the imminent demolition of a Seattle landmark building. Byrnie’s demise is a melancholy reminder of times past, overlapping eras, our changing city, and my own mortality.
Yes, times have changed, and it was widely noted that men stopped wearing hats when President Kennedy appeared hatless at his January 1961 inauguration. I’d argue that they didn’t stop but styles did change after the hatless inauguration; gone was the felt fedora my father wore, and in its place came the ever present baseball cap of my sons and grandsons.
In 1964 the Seattle Times noted in a headline that “Hatter Holds on During Bare-Head Trend.” That article was written 54 years ago, and yet 54 years later Byrnie (and Paul) were still in business at 310 Union Street, maintaining their thriving business in hats until an out of town real estate developer, not a lack of customers, brought about their closing.
Byrnie Utz Hats never compromised its belief that hats make an important statement about a man’s style. Byrnie did not adapt to changing fashion by selling baseball caps. Instead, he doubled down and stocked the store with handmade Panamas, wool berets, porkpies, and ten-gallon Texas-style cowboys.
During its last week in business, when I went in to check it out there were dozens of customers still willing to pay $200 for a handmade straw or felt porkpie. Yes, there is still a market for a well-made, handcrafted gentleman’s hat. Byrnie’s closing was not a fire sale, but it was the end of an era, and Mr. Ferry presided over it with dignity and good spirits.
In his 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut used “So it goes” as a marquee phrase to mark a death or noir invocation and show us how tragedy has been normalized, trivialized, or randomized after sad or horrific events. It seems appropriate to mark the closing of Byrnie Utz Hats with a nod to Vonnegut.
“So it goes.”
My dad always wore a hat. It was part of his “kit.” He didn’t feel dressed without it. In Marine Corps parlance, his uniform was incomplete unless he was “covered.” Marilynn regularly comments on my need for a hat since I’ve had a number of serious skin cancers. My father had none, so she has a point. I do need to protect what skin is left on my crusty, leathery, freckled, shaved head.
With the closing of Byrnie Utz, it’s clear I’ll have to go elsewhere to get “covered,” but I like to think, had he stayed in business, I would have found the perfect Panama-straw there – when I felt it was really time to man-up.