Fedora Explorer

Her partners now gone, the owner of 99-year-old Paul’s Hat Works goes solo with the lid business.

Abbie Dwelle, owner of Paul’s Hat Works.

Ask people around here to name San Francisco’s oldest establishments. The white-coated waiters at the Financial District’s Tadich Grill (founded 1849) often come to mind, as do the spirits if not the current letter of the bygone three-martini lunch.

On the other side of town, a short walk from the Cliff House and Lands End, a business that also trades in images of another era is not far behind: Paul’s Hat Works on Geary Blvd., shoehorned into a mid-block slot, its façade adorned with silhouettes of classic hats and waxed mustaches, turns 100 next year.

It nearly didn’t. In 2009, a quartet of twenty-something women, all artists and roommates, were having breakfast next door and wandered over to the shop’s goodbye party, where owner Michael Harris was holding court. On short notice, they rescued it from permanent closure. Mad as hatters, perhaps, but not hatters themselves to begin with, they took out loans and learned about felt, straw, and leather on the fly. They ran Paul’s — Paul was the nickname of original owner Napoleon Marquez — for years cooperatively as a kind of hangout, with a couch in the back and a loft with barber stations above.

“Our friends came to town and wanted to open a salon,” says Abbie Dwelle, one of the four. “It makes our shop more interesting, and it’s nice to have the company.”

Their work did not go unnoticed, even covering the most famous head in the world at one time. Two years ago, Dwelle, now 31, took over from her partners. As the new top hat, she is both rueful and pragmatic about the demands of, well, running a business. “I like it when my friends stop by. But to follow through with my customers I can’t hang out with whoever stops by as much. It’s a rocky, growing-pains situation,” she says.

Wearing all the hats

Her seven years at the shop is about the span of a hatter’s apprenticeship. But only recently has she begun the standard procedure of record-keeping. Asked about the business, she totes up numbers on the fly. Dwelle figures she and her two part-time employees clean about 30 hats a month and make about 15 more, all from custom orders. Some months the shop breaks even, some months it turns a slight profit, she adds, but admits it’s not fully “pinned down.”

‘Instead of letting the shop run me, I’m trying to run it.’

“With four owners, someone would always show up and make sure everything got done,” but she can’t do that on her own, stay until midnight when orders pile up, and make sense of things. “If I’m working however much the shop needs me, it’s erratic. How many hats can the shop take in a month? How much can the shop make? It’s hard to read unless you make everything consistent. Forcing things into boxes has been hard but fascinating.”

Other than an Instagram account, social media is more a hurdle than an asset at this point; the shop sells hats by word of mouth, mainly to Bay Area residents. “It would probably be a good choice to market to the newer crowd in town,” Dwelle says, with a bit of resignation, and adjusts the brown-felt fedora angled just so atop her short, sandy brown hair that curls slightly at the ends. “I can’t say I’ve done an amazing job, because I’m busy making hats.”

Her reticence about business is mirrored in her comments about that “newer crowd.” As a broke artist living the post-college San Francisco dream, Dwelle came to love the city during the recession between the two tech booms. “Before you could just move to different parts of town for fun,” she recalls. “Now you can’t move at all.”

The hat shop has also stayed put. The original 1918 space, Dwelle admits, needs a redesign. Some odd choices constrain space even further. An upstairs loft, accessible via a spiral staircase, holds the barber stations. The basement has room for inventory and an office, along with a tinkering studio.

Paul’s has barber stations. “The hair and the hat have such a contentious history,” says Dwelle.

The hatmaking and cleaning happens on the ground floor behind the counter, with a modest view of a tree in the backyard. Wooden flanges of various head circumferences nestle into cubbies along one wall. Leather and ribbon work takes place in shifts at a work table. Space is at a premium, but there’s still room for a sink and a coffee machine.

Downtown clients have complained about the western location, Dwelle says, but moving to Union Square or a hipper, higher-rent commercial stretch like Haight Street would force big changes: “My hats are already expensive. I don’t want them to get more expensive.”

Prices are fairly straightforward: Rabbit-fur models are $400, and beaver is $550. The top of the line are straw hats sourced from Montecristi, Ecuador, where toquilla palm fronds are split, sometimes bleached, then woven over a block to take on a vague hat shape. In a stack of 100, perhaps five are “fino fino,” according to Dwelle, who recently came back from a 10-day sourcing trip. Montecristis at the shop run from $700 to a couple grand. Cuenca straw hats, also from Ecuador, are in the $500 range.

“I had a customer sit on his Montecristi and I reblocked it,” she says. “It didn’t even crack. If you sit on a Cuenca, you probably crack it.”

Dwelle can remember one of the most lavish pieces she’s ever produced. It was an 8-inch-high top hat, covered in long, shiny rabbit shag, a special binding around the curled brim, and a cockade — an ornate flower of ribbons — on the side.

The shop’s tiny footprint has kept it relatively free of San Francisco’s small-business regulations. But minimum-wage requirements of $13 an hour are a constraint. “I’ve worked lots of minimum-wage jobs in this town, I support rules and regulations that are good for employees,” Dwelle points out. “But as a business owner it’s like, ‘Wow, that means I can’t hire a full-time employee.’ I can’t afford it.”

San Francisco second thoughts?

Inspired by solid sales at Paul’s annual pop-up trip to the Kentucky Derby, Dwelle and her former partners had a short run a few years ago with a second storefront in Louisville, Ky. (The mayor helped with the ribbon-cutting.) That didn’t work out, but the cheap space and slower pace planted a seed.

“Before that I was die-hard San Francisco: Stay here no matter what, live in an apartment with five people, suffer, and not have a savings account because it’s so amazing here.” Dwelle pauses. “But being there, having the elbow room, I was like, ‘It would be OK to leave.’ There would be time and room for creativity to prosper instead of hustling to make it.”

No move is imminent, she says. Instead, she wants to rearrange the interior for better work flow and perhaps boost revenues with ready-made hats. She thinks she has found some “really well-made berets,” and those might be followed by watch caps and boaters: “When I get my numbers clear, I’ll know what kind of hole I need to fill.”

After two years of transition, Dwelle reflects that she likes “working her ass off” but also wants a better business to mean a better life. “Instead of letting the shop run me, I’m trying to run it.”

That’s not to say she’s ready to turn Paul’s into a conventional store. The salon stations in the loft aren’t going anywhere. “We bring each other business, which is nice,” says Dwelle. “The hair and the hat have such a contentious history. I like the contradiction of having them together.”

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