Saunders: Two hats for President Obama

Staff WriterJune 18, 2011 

Unlike a lot of people in his line of work, Pablo Alvarez doesn't blame President John F. Kennedy for the downturn in his business.

President Kennedy? Hey, wasn't he in office 50 years ago?

Yes, but Kennedy has been faulted for almost singleheadedly crushing the hat industry in America when he gave his 1960 inauguration speech topless ... uh, without a hat on.

"He actually had a hat," Alvarez, owner of the Hat Lounge in Durham's Northgate Mall, said. "A silk top hat. But he took it off when he gave his speech."

If you'd had a mane like that, you'd have taken your hat off, too. All I know is that in newsreel footage that preceded Kennedy's election, most men - even the ones in soup lines - wore hats. Since Kennedy, though, hat-wearers have become a minority.

Far more responsible for that, Alvarez theorized when I spoke with him this week, was the mass exodus to the suburbs. Men began driving to and from work, he said, and the roof of the car provided the topper that hats did for city dwellers.

Despite the long-held myth, then, Alvarez doesn't think one president toppled the topper industry.

He believes, though, that one could help revive it.

I was in his store seeking a sky for my own dome the day after President Barack Obama visited the Triangle, when Alvarez mentioned that he'd written to the president at the White House and offered him a couple of lids.

Say what? Lids? I asked to see a copy of the letter. It read:

Mr. President, we have just learned of your visit to Durham. ... We understand that your stay will be short. ... We would be honored if you would stop by our small hat store. ... We would like to present you two of our finest hats ... in honor of your visit and in the spirit of Father's Day. Please consider our request. Have a blessed day, Pablo and Eliza.

The Durham hatter isn't mad that Obama didn't drop in - "I doubt the President even saw my letter," he said - but he hopes the president will see it before returning to the state for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte next year. "It was just a shot I threw out. I wanted to try and will continue to try. I want to convey the story of a small mom-and-pop business in this chaotic economy. Not just mine, but everyone's. It's not just my story."

No, but Alvarez's story is compelling by itself. He moved to New York with his family in 1984 from Colombia. "I was 11 at the time. I didn't speak English," he said.

"Family is very important to us," he said, by way of explaining why - after his sister moved to Cary - the rest of the family followed to the Triangle. "It was the best thing I ever did, moving here. If I'd stayed in New York, I would've never become an entrepreneur."

Moving here might've been the best thing he ever did, but having the president stop in for a couple of brims would rank pretty high, too.

The offer of the two free hats is still on the table, too, Mr. President.

Tell Barry what you think at 919-836-2811 or at

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