Road Journals Blog—When I pushed open the door of J.W. Hats, a nondescript store in a small strip mall on the west side of Salt Lake City, I didn’t expect to find much in the way of character. Jim Whittington, the store's longtime owner, quickly proved me wrong. He could have been an extra in a John Wayne movie. Maybe the town sheriff.
When I pushed open the door of J.W. Hats , a nondescript store in a small strip mall on the west side of Salt Lake City, I didn’t expect to find much in the way of character. Jim Whittington, the store's longtime owner, quickly proved me wrong. He could have been an extra in a John Wayne movie. Maybe the town sheriff.
Part Antiques Road Show  patron, part hat mechanic, Whittington has a story for everything in his shop. Everything there has to do with hats, except maybe the antique barber chair (whose seat was once warmed by Billy the Kid ), but even that had been used by customers being fitted for hats.
“I could write a book about hats, but then I can’t write,” he said, eyes glinting with a mixture of mischief and seriousness. “ You want to write a book about hats?”
This didn’t sound to me like a question so much as a command. Whittington is pretty good at convincing me that there’s more to this accessory than sun blockage. “We’ve been fur felting back to before Christ for clothing,” he said. “Napoleon, and who was that fat guy that swore a lot? Churchill. They’ve all got hat stories.”
Used to be that those who were well-to-do wore hats everywhere. Stagecoach drivers would take a gentleman’s hat after he was done for the day and send it out for nightly cleaning, Whittington explained to me. A poster in his shop looks like it could be from an old Sears catalog, advertising dozens of head toppers, all seemingly dapper: the Versailles, the Handy, the Abbey, the Drury. The poster is dated 1878.
While I was perusing these old-timer styles, a man in a plaid shirt and brown leather jacket walked in and handed Whittington a page from a magazine. He pointed to a model on the page and asked Whittington if he could make that hat. Whittington eyed it and nodded, and the man left.
“Most of the modern styles these days come from Hollywood,” Whittington said. “I got customers who are businessmen during the week and cowboys on the weekend.”
Some of his customers aren’t even that. The last time I spoke to Whittington, a couple from Denmark were being fitted for hats in the shop. How does he attract folks from all over the world?
“You build it and they will come ,” he said. Whittington doesn’t advertise, but says that he treats people in his shop like friends, not customers.
It’s a very 1878 attitude for an 1878 profession in the modern-day heart of Salt Lake City.
Peta Liston's Q&A with Jim Whittington ran in the May/June 2011  issue of VIA.
Photography by Toshihiro Gamo/Flickr
This blog post was first published in May 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.