Places that Matter

Bencraft Hatters

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Bencraft Hatters' Williamsburg storefront, 2016
Bencraft Hatters' Williamsburg storefront, 2016
Steven Goldstein in Bencraft Hatters, 2016
Inventory, Bencrafter Hatters, 2016
Bencraft Hatters interior, Williamsburg, 2016
Bencraft Hatters, hat box, 2016
Go-to hat store for over 65 years
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Place Matters Profile

Bencraft Hatters has been located in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn for over sixty-five years. Today, the beloved boutique is run by third-generation owner Steven Goldstein, whose grandfather, Ben Goldstein, founded the business in 1948. Ben’s own father fabricated and sold hats in Poland, and returned to the old country shortly after World War I. But Ben and his brothers all had a great affinity for New York, as well as the local hat trade. Ben’s son, the late Stanley Goldstein, took charge of Bencraft in 1954, right as the business moved to its longtime Broadway and Havemeyer Street home, just astride the bustling confluence of the Williamsburg Bridge, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, and the J/M/Z train trestle. Despite the changing demographics of their north Brooklyn environs, Bencraft’s time-honored inventory is as popular as ever, and is now sought by style-savvy newcomers as well as the Goldstein’s stalwart Orthodox Jewish client base. Bencraft has also maintained a second storefront and tailoring outpost for the last twenty-two years, which recently relocated to Avenue M in Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood, complete with antique flanges, hat blocks, and other hard-to-find tools of the hat fixing trade.
When Bencraft was first established, customers invested in hats as a matter of course. At the time, no man would consider going to work or the theater with his cranium uncovered, and brimmed hats of varying diameters were a particularly ubiquitous part of mainstream fashion through mid-century. In the 1940s, brims were wide, but by the 1950s, brims went down to an inch and a half, or an inch and five-eighths. The trend yo-yoed for years, but as time passed and barriers of etiquette were broken, styles and social mores changed such that outwear became more casual, obviating the need for a formal headpiece. Happily, Bencraft has endured as the go-to hattery for New York City’s various Orthodox Jewish communities, and with the current influx of younger residents and tourists into Williamsburg, Goldstein and his team also regularly cater to Texans looking buy cowboy hats, or hip young men from the other side of Broadway seeking a classic chapeau from the guys who know.
Today hats are worn for many reasons -- to express personal identity, to protect one’s head from weather, to signify one’s profession, or to represent a community or cultural affiliation. “So a cowboy hat could describe a person who lives out in the West, or who works on a farm,” Goldstein explains, “or it might just be a stylistic decision. A fedora, on the other hand, might describe someone who is more of a religious person, and in Brooklyn, it might even describe which specific neighborhood you live in.”
To the uninitiated, a black brimmed hat is a black brimmed hat. But a fedora is quite different from a homburg, and each brim, crown, band, and bow combination carries its own association, especially in contemporary Jewish culture. Goldstein models a homburg made in Seville, Spain by a company called ISESA. Homburgs are known for being especially sturdy and strong, and are donned daily by many in Borough Park’s Orthodox community, as well as many in Israel.  “It’s a rabbinical type of hat, a distinguished type of hat where the shape is kept for a long time, so it’s also good for daily use” Goldstein notes. Bencraft sells scores of homburgs in various brim sizes, along with other familiar styles that delineate between the different sects of people who live in different parts of the city. Religious Jews keep their heads covered as a sign of piety, but the various groups within the wider community have chosen specific styles to indicate their traditions. The Satmar Jewish community, who largely reside in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, are avid buyers of the bent-up (always worn with its brim turned skyward) by the South American company Puerto Fino. “The interesting thing about the Satmar Jewish people is that they are wearing the bent-up hats that were actually worn many years ago by their forebears,” Goldstein says. “So they’re basically handing down the same customs and dress that were worn generations ago. It’s not uncommon to see someone in Williamsburg wearing a long black coat and a black hat exactly as they dressed in Eastern Europe.”
Fedoras are probably Bencraft’s most popular hat, which they sell in many different colors and shapes, and from many different companies. Italian-made black Borsalino fedoras in a wide brim are common sights in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, where many members of the Lubavitch Jewish community live. The fedora was favored by the Lubavitch community’s late leader, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Goldstein explains, but interestingly, the fedora is considered a more modern style, so it is also popular with the general public. “The Lubavitch tend to follow Rebbe Schneerson’s trend, and they like hats where the brims are wider. So they’re just a little bit more up-to-date as far as their headwear goes.”
Although New York has always had plenty of hatitude, most hats have origins elsewhere, and many have been modified over time. The fedora, for example, was initially a women's hat, with the name derived from the title character of Victorien Sardou's 1882 play, Fédora. In it, Sarah Bernhardt played the title role and wore a fedora on stage. The style was later adopted as a symbol of the women’s rights movement, but when Prince Edward of Britain began wearing fedoras in the 1920s, fedoras became de rigueur for men’s fashion.
Caps, worn by young and old from all walks of life, and favored by Stanley Goldstein, have their own interesting history. A cap is a soft hat without a full brim, featuring instead a rigid protrusion for protection from sun and rain. The newsboy cap is derived from the flat cap, and its origins seem to be a synthesis of the 14th century Scots “Bonnet” style (a brimless hat akin to a beret) and the Irish flat cap worn by Irish farmers and working class men of 14th century Ireland. In effort to stimulate the English wool trade, in 1571 Queen Elizabeth I passed an act requiring Irish males over six years old (excluding nobility and those with pedigree) to wear wool caps on Sundays and holidays. Even though the law was repealed in 1597, the cap was already deeply embedded in Irish and English working class fashion. Two centuries later, the flat cap, or coppola, made its way to Southern Italy, where it was popular first amongst Sicilian portsmen, then among landowners, and eventually symbolic of affiliation with organized crime syndicates, whose members wore theirs askew. The toughs moved on to other styles, but the coppola is still associated with Southern Italy.
In the 19th century, Irish, English, Scottish, and Italian mass migration to the United States influenced local hat stylings. The eight-piece flat cap style now known as the Newsboy, Cabbie, Baker, or Paddy Cap was adopted by late 19th and early 20th century working class Americans, while back in England, it was embraced by the wealthy as an accessory for modern leisure activities, including golf and driving. As hat culture declined in the 20th century and adult men moved on to brimmed hats, boys stuck with the cap, particularly those who delivered newspapers. This led to the nickname 'Newsboy' cap for a style where six or eight triangular pieces are sewn together with a button at the top. American adults later went back to the cap, albeit in the form of a baseball hat.
Goldstein knows his way around hat history and symbolism, having handled hat sales at Bencraft since he was thirteen years old. His first duties at the store included dusting off all off the inventory and adorning specific orders with feathers, a popular mode at the time. Since then, Goldstein has sold many a black hat to bar mitzvah-age sons of loyal customers, thereby participating in an important continuum and right of passage into adulthood for countless men. For all involved, the hats are not just pieces of headwear. They literally make the man.
The omnipresent black brimmed hats are often made of one hundred percent rabbit fur felt. Wool hats are generally less expensive and are worn for more casual wear, but those made from rabbit fur or beaver will take more abuse, and will generally last much longer. But not all hats are made to weather the weather. A significant number of Bencraft’s Williamsburg-based clientele hail from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica. For them, Goldstein’s team carries a healthy selection of straw hats from companies like Stetson, Biltmore, or Borsalino. Panama Straw is very sturdy, so it is a mainstay of this typology. While the material comes from Panama, the hat bodies are woven by hand in Ecuador and finished in the United States or Europe, depending on the desired shape. Understandably, straw hat sales tend to skyrocket in the spring and summer.
Kangol hats enjoyed celebrity about a decade ago thanks to a brief but intense boon by icons of the pop music industry. Although no longer trending, Kangol still brings scores of younger customers to Bencraft. “We also have a lot of older people that are looking for that classic flat cap shape. And a lot of people who don’t necessarily wear hats prefer caps because they’re less expensive, and you can do a lot with a cap.” They also come in a larger variety at a lower price.  “So we have to carry everything!”
Younger people are not only interested in wearing hats, but also in producing them. In the last few years, there has been a small but significant boom in the headwear business, with many new entrepreneurs fabricating their own items by hand. Williamsburg has recently witnessed a number of pop-up hat stores, some of which have made lasting impressions on the elder statesmen of millinery. “They’re craftsmen, and, impressively, they make their own hats. Some of them are really beautiful,” Goldstein says. His business has learned and gained strength from the Brooklyn ingénues. “They’ve shown us that, for example, some people are really interested in small brims, and they like to change the bands around. So we have to update our styles, and keep up with all the different trends. So it’s very interesting, which is also good for us.”
The au courant artisanal set notwithstanding, Bencraft is still the global gold standard of hat sellers, and its loyal fan base is hardly local, with frequent orders from fashionistos as far away as Japan. Although Christmas and Father’s Day are especially busy times, Steven Goldstein rarely sits still, as busy mornings in Williamsburg spent with salesmen discussing both the greatest and the latest styles, and afternoons in Midwood spent greeting old regulars and developing new ones.

There are not many hat stores left in the United States, and the ones that are still in business have generally been around for generations. With any luck, many more generations of hat wearers will buy theirs from Bencraft. 

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