Hats Off to 65-Year-Old Brooklyn Store

(Photo from video on The Jewish Daily Forward)

For Stanley Goldstein, running Bencraft Hatters is old hat after taking it over from his father in 1954. (Photo from video by Nate Lavey of The Jewish Daily Forward)

Bencraft Hatters has been catering to its hat-wearing clientele in Brooklyn for 65 years. The Williamsburg store was opened in 1948 by the father of current owner Stanley Goldstein. Now 85, Stanley has some help managing the store from his son Steven, who also runs operations at their other location in Boro Park. The Jewish Daily Forward’s Nate Lavey provides a glimpse into Bencraft Hatters through a video report on the specialty store that caters to Jews and non-Jews alike.

The breakdown of customers at the two locations reflects the different demographics of not just the respective neighborhoods, but also among the various Jewish groups.

… The Williamsburg location accommodates a more secular crowd, including hipsters, while in Boro Park the clientele tends to be distinctly Orthodox.

Steven explained that “there are three or four hat stores in Boro Park, and for the most part each hat store takes care of a different sect of the community.” Bencraft is mostly oriented toward the Lubavitch and Modern Orthodox communities, which are not heavily represented in Boro Park. That means that customers sometimes trek across the city just to try on a Borsalino.

While specialty stores have been struggling to survive in this age of big-name department stores and one-stop shopping, it isn’t sales that concern the Goldsteins. In fact, with an increase in the city’s Orthodox Jews, the clientele is growing. What’s more, Bencraft may open another shop in Lakewood, N.J., a town with a large Orthodox community.

The Goldsteins’s biggest concern is providing specialized services in a trade with few hands left in the business.

But even though Bencraft has been in business longer than many of its clients have been alive, the Goldsteins are facing difficulty finding the equipment to mend hats and, even more rare, people with the skills to operate that equipment. In the damp basement of the Boro Park store, the “flanging room” is cluttered with old sewing machines, hat blocks and flanges — wooden molds used to shape hats to the wearer’s preference. Some of the equipment is more than 100 years old and includes a tired Singer sewing machine used to repair leather hatbands. Most of the store’s newer equipment, still decades old, was bought from other area hat stores that have closed down.

Visit the Jewish Daily Forward to watch “Men of Many Hats,” their video report on Bencraft Hatters.

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