12 Legs Blog
I like hats. Packed away in a closet back home is a box containing a stack of them — fedoras, porkpies and trilbies, molded of felt and straw and fabric. But nearly none of these hats has graced my head in public. That’s because it takes a certain man — Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Depp — to do justice to classic headwear, and I, tragically, am not that kind of man.
I brought only one hat on this trip: a trucker cap Jill purchased for me at a Luceroconcert when trucker caps were still stylishly ironical. I figure I’m allowed to wear a trucker hat past its ironical prime, because (1) I also wore a trucker hat before its ironical prime and (2) I presently spend a lot of time with the pedal to the metal.
My current cap has a burnt-oil-black crown and a mesh back the color and sheen of runny oatmeal. It’s a good hat for concealing unwashed hair, and it suits me around the campfire or atop a barroom stool. But it felt completely inadequate atop my head when I walked into Óptimo Custom Hatworks in Bisbee, Ariz.
Óptimo Custom Hatworks is the kind of specialty shop that restores character to boom-and-bust mining towns like Bisbee, where precious metal and historian’s ink tend to exhaust themselves at the same pace. When the Phelps Dodge Corporation, after 90 years, finally ceased its copper-mining operation in Bisbee in 1975, the town probably should have faded into obscurity. But it didn’t. Instead, artists filled the void, nesting like opportunistic sparrows in the miners’ empty homes and transforming boarded-up shops into studios and galleries.
Stephen Grant Sergot is one of those artists. But his medium isn’t paint or stone — it’s felt and straw. And Óptimo Custom Hatworks is both his gallery and studio.
If Don Draper or Indiana Jones owned the world and dictated its fashion, Sergot would be a god. The gentleman knows hats. He knows how to shape them, how to clean them, how to restore them. He knows how to fit them to head shapes and facial features and body types. He is a student of hat history and a connoisseur hat couture.
I spent more than an hour in Sergot’s company as Jill photographed him and his shop, and in that time I observed him handle a hat one of only two ways: with care or with purpose. There was something almost sensual about the way he touched the elegantly dented crown of a Tom Mix cowboy hat, tracing its stiff ridges and gentle curves with impeccably manicured fingers. It was impossible not to watch, but it seemed indecent to stare.
Sergot himself has the look of a fine hat — all symmetry and crisp edges. He wears a dove-gray beard trimmed close, like brushed felt, and his Western-style attire is tastefully adorned with smooth leather and pearly buttons.
Sergot dresses with precision, moves with precision, speaks with precision — even smiles with precision — and Óptimo Custom Hatworks is a reflection of his personality and craftsmanship. Much to Jill’s camera-wielding delight, the place is lit like a museum and the hats are displayed like sculptures. Some are perched atop ash pedestals stained to a mahogany patina (Sergot made them himself, out of piano legs), while others rest inside cases of smudgeless glass. Hats within reach of browsers bear sticky notes that read “Please Do Not Handle.”
Contrary to the shop’s Bisbee location and Sergot’s adopted Southwestern style (he’s a native Michigander), delicately woven Panama hats account for most of the headwear on display. These are Sergot’s specialty and passion. I asked him why, and he recounted a story about discovering his first Panama hat at an estate sale in Cave Creek, Ariz., in 1972.
“It was sitting in a milk crate, shimmering in the sun,” he said. “I picked it up, worked my hands around it, felt the back weave of the brim edge. There was no wire on the brim edge. It was a wonderful, wonderful texture — malleable yet durable.”
He bought the Panama at auction for $15, and thus began a love affair between man and hat.
From listening to Sergot chat with customers who wandered into his shop, I learned that Panama hats are not actually made in Panama. They come from Ecuador. They acquired the moniker “Panama” because laborers constructing the Panama Canal wore them to shield their faces from the sun. The name stuck after Teddy Roosevelt was photographed in one of the hats during a 1906 visit to the canal and the New York Times described it as a “Panama hat.”
Most people who enter Óptimo Custom Hatworks are gawkers and loiterers and tourists. Sergot has observed their behavior for 30 years, and that has no doubt influenced his interactions with would-be customers. Sometimes, when the tiny bell rings above the shop door, he barely looks up from his work; other times, he slides easily into salesman mode.
A favorite routine is explaining to a shopper that hat fitting is all about proportion — that a wide-brimmed hat balances, and even slims, the profile of man with a large belly. If a customer seems serious about a hat purchase, Sergot might come around the counter and measure the man’s (or woman’s) head with a “conformer,” a Victorian-era device that resembles a top hat built from ancient typewriter innards.
As earnest as Sergot is about his craft, I can’t help thinking he would have been a suave snake-oil salesmen back in days when copper was first discovered in Bisbee’s hills. His manner is confident and practiced; his eyes are easily set atwinkle. Donald Sutherland would play him in the film. Or maybe Richard Dreyfuss.
Sergot’s beguiling comportment also extends to journalists. When I asked him how he got his start as a hatter, he unspooled a fascinating story about migrating from Michigan in a truck with two dogs, stopping to pick up a hitchhiker near the rim of the Grand Canyon, getting bogged down in the mud and finding an old felt hat in a ditch. The hat had bite marks on it — “could have been pack rats,” Sergot theorized — but he threw it in the truck anyway, and later put it on while waiting out a storm in Supai, Ariz.
“I’m sitting around a juniper fire, and I’m wearing a poncho and this old felt hat, and these big, wet snowflakes started making the hat wet,” he said. “The brim started changing shape. So I started doing things to it, to try to gutter the water out the front and back. … I laid it on the dashboard overnight, and the next day the sun started to dry it. Once it got very dry, I couldn’t do anything more to it. So that night I put the tea kettle on the fire, and got some steam rolling out, and started steaming the hat and realized, ‘Hey, this is how you do it.’”
It’s a creation story of almost biblical perfection, and you can read strikingly similar versions of it in the “History and Media Kit” section of Óptimo’s website, or in any one of the framed magazine articles that hang on the wall of Sergot’s shop. The guy is nothing if not media savvy. He even showed me a piece of notebook paper on which he has written his responses — augmented with wisecracks — to the most common questions he gets from reporters.
But savvy works for Sergot, and his beautiful hattery works for Bisbee. Case in point: While he was graciously tolerating Jill’s clacking shutter and my drawling questions, a middle-aged couple from British Columbia entered the shop. They said they had been to Óptimo seven years ago, but Sergot was on vacation and an assistant was manning the store.
“We’ve been waiting seven years to come back,” said the male half of the couple. “We rolled into town 20 minutes ago, and this is our first stop.” Sergot smiled and reached for his Victorian conformer. It was showtime at Óptimo — and it was a cue for Jill and I to move on.
Before I pushed open the door, I took one last, longing gaze at the rows of hats hanging on the wall. A gray cowboy hat with a flat brim and open crown called to me. It had called to me since I first set foot in the shop, tempting me to make an impulse purchase, to have Sergot expertly shape it to my noggin for the road ahead, which, after all, led through New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana — cowboy-hat places if there ever were any.
But I hadn’t even tried the hat on. I was too shy to ask, and now it was too late. So I pulled my trucker cap low over my eyes and re-entered Bisbee’s sun-glinted world of art galleries, antique stores and curio shops.
Those other joints might keep Bisbee’s sidewalks bustling with tourists and window shoppers, but it is people like Grant Sergot and places like Óptimo that prevent the town from descending, like a rickety mine car, into a black maw of homogeneous quaintness.
Somebody in Bisbee should tip a hat to that.