Willis Drinkart stands behind the glass counter at a storefront located at Highland and Poplar in Memphis, Tennessee, holding onto his hat, literally and figuratively.
Here at Mister Hats, he models Stetsons, Stefenos, Baileys and other famous brands, showing customers how different styles go with different faces, and he tells the cost of each and how to find a hat each customer will love.
For veterans like Drinkart and perhaps a handful of other clothing and accessory retailers in Memphis, it’s all about holding onto traditions, a customer care ethos that some say is vanishing in the age of Amazon along with the brick-and-mortar storefront.
Some might say wearing a hat is old school, but Drinkart, 68, isn’t having any of it.
“It completes an outfit,” he explains. “Whether it’s a small hat or big hat, you are going to carry yourself in a different kind of way, and the rest of the world won’t matter.”
Drinkart has worked at Mister Hats for 17 years, and he represents a vanishing breed of salesmen who sees the customer as a painting in progress — a painting Drinkart would like to finish. He can match anyone who walks in the door with a hat that compliments his face, he says.
But his impact on the Memphis retail scene is bigger than the largest-sized hat the store carries. Drinkart is a legend among the city’s African-American business community.
He came to Memphis from Columbis, Ohio, in 1989, fascinated with Beale Street and the blues, planning to become an artist and help promote the city’s African-American artists through his own gallery, which he kept running for more than a decade. “I had a dream, so that’s why I did it,” he recalls.
Drinkart’s artwork revolved around music and what it meant to the city of Memphis, an economic gold mine–that is, until 2004, when the FedEx Forum was built and many small businesses vanished in its shadow, he recalls.
The original heart of Beale Street was fading fast, replaced by a corporate America with its businesses growing even faster.
It was the end of an era for Drinkart and for Beale Street, he says, but it was just the start of a whole new profession borne of an old love–the hats Drinkart has worn since he was a young boy.
“Me and my two brothers always wore hats,” Drinkart said of his Arkansas childhood. “We always got hats around Easter time and Christmas time, and I’ve been wearing hats ever since.”
Drinkart wore hats because he had grown up seeing hats on his father’s head, part of his father’s everyday wardrobe, and so Drinkart believes he shares a deep cultural connection through the hats his family wore.
“Hats are a common ground among the people who walk through the doors,” Drinkart said.
But the customers who visit Mister Hats are much different than those of earlier decades. Many just need something to keep the sun off their heads; others are looking to emulate sports stars, rappers or actors. The notion of the hat as a symbol for one’s father, for example, is tied to earlier decades.
The hat business Drinkart recalls thrived in the 1920s and through the Great Depression, World War II and into the 1950s, before a sharp decline in 1960.
“My hero John F. Kennedy came along, and he had a full head full of dark hair,” Drinkart said. “He never wore hats, and that almost killed the hat industry.”
These days, Drinkart credits celebrities like Justin Timberlake, LeBron James and Tom Brady with helping to revive the hat. Celebrities spike hat sales whenever the public sees them sporting them.
“There’s a whole generation following those hats,” Drinkart said.
At the end of the day, Drinkart says he is thankful to be a hat salesman at Mister Hats and to learn much of what he knows from Alvin Lansky, a Memphis clothing legend who started Mister Hats and passed away last year at age 86.
Along with Lansky’s brother, Bernard, the two helped clothe many of the city’s most fashion-forward residents, including Elvis Presley.
In the late afternoon sun, Drinkart springs to life from a chair in the back of the store as a customer enters. The memories he carries of the city and its customers are all he really needs now.
“Every day is a good day to put a hat on, because you’re not completely dressed until you’re wearing a hat.”