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December 19, 2017

New Haven's DelMonico Hatter stands test of time

Photo | Contributed The DelMonico Hatter sign is a familiar sight in downtown New Haven.
Photo | Contributed Old store photo, 1920s.
Photo | Contributed The late Joseph DelMonico.
Photo | Contributed The store's entrance at 47 Elm St.

Put a lid on it.

That’s what DelMonico Hatter has been doing for more than 100 years. The downtown New Haven shop a stone’s throw from the green is bursting at the seams with every imaginable style and maker of headgear, from caps to derbies. Looking for a toasted crown panama fedora, a houndstooth pub cap or an Amsterdam boater? Yeah, they’ve got those.

“We try to carry every kind of hat,” said Ben DelMonico, whose great-grandfather founded the store in 1908. “We carry some of the best brands in the world.”

As impressive as DelMonico Hatter is – a dense thicket of headwear, with hats climbing the walls and clogging the floor – the store is but a fragment of the business. You’d never guess it, but the cozy shop with a sign depicting Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Hatter over the entrance is the nerve center of one of the largest Internet hat retailers in the nation, said Ben and his father Ernest DelMonico. More than three-quarters of the store’s sales are online, with customers all over the U.S. and Canada and as far away as China and Australia, they said.

“We’re really an Internet company with a storefront,” Ben DelMonico said.

Back when DelMonico Hatter was founded, hats were de rigueur for men, and there were about 30 hat shops in the Elm City, Ben DelMonico said. But in the 1960s, a new generation rejected traditional felt and straw hats as stodgy and square, and the business cratered. Some attribute the beginning of headwear’s decline to John F. Kennedy’s decision to eschew the traditional top hat and go hatless at his 1960 inaugural, but hat wearing was already waning at the time, he said.

As the passions of the 1960s dissipated, hats made something of a comeback but never regained their former status as a staple of men’s fashion. “I think people kind of realized that dressing up isn’t that bad,” DelMonico said.

It’s thanks to Ben’s grandfather, Joseph DelMonico, that the store survived. He ran it through good times and bad for 70 years until his death in 2001. At the time of his passing, his son, Ernest, had just sold a software company and decided to take over the family business. He immediately grasped that DelMonico Hatters had to go online.

“Frankly, when I got involved, it was sell it, close it or go into the Internet business,” Ernest DelMonico said.

The move paid off in spades. Ernest DelMonico estimated that the store’s business increased tenfold, and it became one of the nation’s leading Internet hat sellers, winning retailer of the year from both Stetson and The Headwear Association. His son Ben attributed the store’s online success to the continuing existence of the retail stop and its long history.

“We’re well known in the headwear business,” Ben DelMonico said. “We’re well known among the vendors and distributors.”

Contrary to popular belief, hat stores still exist, with most major cities having at least one, Ben DelMonico said. DelMonico’s reputation and status as the only hat store of its kind in the state have turned it into a destination of sorts, he said. Hat fans from Connecticut, New England and New York state make special trips or include the shop on visits to the Elm City, he said.

“We’re coming to New Haven, I’m going to DelMonico’s, I want to get a Pepe’s pizza and we’ll do Louis Lunch,” he said. “We’re on the itinerary.”

The store’s clientele is diverse, everyone from wealthy Fairfield County hedge fund managers to Yale professors to local African Americans, Ben DelMonico said. The most popular hats are straw in various styles, with makers Stetson, Borsalino and Kangol customer favorites, he said. Top hats are typically sold for weddings and boaters for Gatsby or white parties, he said. The most expensive hat DelMonico offers is a Superfino Montecristi Panama straw for nearly $1,000. The cheapest sell for around $40, with most of the store’s inventory in the $75-to-$300 range.

The store also offers hat care services, including cleaning, stretching and blocking. Blocking is restoring a hat to its original shape, Ben DelMonico said. Felt fur is remarkably resilient, and hats from as far back as the 1940s can be brought back as long as the material is not ripped, he said. A 90-year-old employee who has worked at the store for seven decades does all the blocking, he said.

Looking to the future, the store is planning to launch a new website next year. But the bigger change will be the likely passing of the torch to a fourth generation: Ben, 43, expects to take over from his 77-year-old father soon, he said.

“I’d like to keep the family business alive,” said Ben DelMonico, who lives in the city. “I’d like to give people good service and give them something they can’t get anywhere else.”

Christopher Hoffman can be reached at


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