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Keeping Their Heads

If the Afro couldn't sink it, why should this family hat business worry about a little thing like a neighborhood overhaul?

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By Ben Joravsky

In 1950 a firefighter named Arthur Bacon, 30 years old and recently out of the army, opened a hat store on a bustling stretch of 47th Street. In the 50 years since, much has changed along 47th, as fires, bankruptcies, urban renewal, and economic decay have driven away many of the businesses and their clientele.

But Bacon's Clothing & Hatters is still there. "And we ain't going nowhere either--least we have no plans to," says Butch Bacon, who inherited the store from his father when he retired and moved to the southwest. "We moved down the street from where my daddy opened. He was at 345, and we're at 507. But it's still 47th Street. Long as I'm alive, always going to be a Bacon's hat store on 47th Street."

In many ways Bacon's store harks back to when the city's black community was much more self-contained than it is today. The commercial strip on 47th drew a vast array of shoppers--well-to-do and poor--as well as celebrities and regular folk. Today much of that economic mix has gone, as 47th Street long ago bottomed out. Apparently black consumers, like everybody else, are drawn to malls.

Yet Bacon's still flourishes. Butch Bacon says he met many of his customers more than 30 years ago, when he was a teenager growing up on the far south side and working at his father's store on weekends. "I used to dream about playing baseball, but that wasn't going to happen--I wasn't gonna make that basket catch like Willie Mays," he says. "So when I graduated from Carver [High School] I came down here to work full-time, and I've been working here ever since."

Bacon has gained a reputation as the eyes and ears of 47th, which isn't surprising since he's almost always there. "We don't never close down," he says. "We're open every day--Christmas, New Year's, all the holidays. People wanna buy hats, we're here. You come by on the Super Bowl Sunday, we'll be here. We've got a TV. You won't miss a thing."

His friends joke that Bacon's like a sphinx because of his deadpan manner and poker face. Most of the time customers can find him behind his desk in the far corner of the store, a perch that allows him to see everything in the showroom. A bell buzzes when the door opens, so Bacon sees everyone who comes by. Most of his customers walk over to say hello.

He runs the store with his 31-year-old son, Eric Bacon, who will inherit the business when Butch retires, and with salesman Walter Steward. Tony Bacon, Butch's younger brother, often drops by, as do old friends and acquaintances. "Hat stores have always been big in the black community," says Tony. "Back in the day, every major business district had one. But you know how it's been down through the years with all the recessions. We just may be one of the only ones left."

They're probably the only ones who still make their own hats. In a back room Eric makes as many as ten a day. "They call me the mad hatter," he says. "I've been doing this for 13 years now, ever since I got out of Morgan Park High School back in '87. I used to watch my grandfather make these hats when I was a kid."

Over the years, they've sold to many celebrities. "We used to sell the singer Donny Hathaway those big apple hats he favored," says Butch. "Sidney Poitier once bought a hat. One day Steve Harvey pulled up in a big white limo and bought himself a hat. Jimmy Spinks used to come by here all the time before he passed. You remember Jimmy--he was in Car Wash."

They've never had any major break-ins, Butch says, even though their stretch of 47th is a high-crime area. Maybe it's because some of the area's more notorious characters also buy their hats there. "Flukey used to come in here to buy his hats," he says, referring to the south-side drug dealer who was murdered in 1986. "We get all sorts of folks. Members of rival gangs. We had one gang buy black hats with red bands, and the other, black hats with white bands. They come in here all the time. Sometimes they'd be in here at the same time buying their hats. Never had no trouble. Here they're cool with each other. They'd be trying on their hats, sharing the same mirror. Outside on the street it was something else though."

One big threat to the store's existence came during the stretch of the 70s when Afros were king and hats fell out of favor. Steward explains, "Couldn't fit a hat over all that hair." So Butch brought in all sorts of suits, ties, and jackets. "They had some of the best suits--real sharp, bright colors like electric lime and hot red," remembers Willie King, a south-sider who's been shopping for years at the Bacons' store.

Then the Afro fell out of favor, and hats came back. "We're still selling suits and coats, but not like we used to," says Butch. "And we're selling more hats than ever."

The next big threat came in the 1980s, when the Bacons' building was sold. That's when they moved down the street. If there's a current threat to their existence it comes from the city. Across the street to the west is the recently constructed Lou Rawls Theater, part of the city's ambitious plan to turn 47th Street into a touristy blues district. Like many of the local businesses--including the famous Gerri's Palm Tavern, located kitty-corner across the street from the hat store--Bacon's got a letter last year from the city warning that the property could be seized through eminent domain.

Butch Bacon remains characteristically unfazed. He says there's been talk of the project for years, and yet the area remains underdeveloped--if it's coming, it's not coming very fast. "I talked to the alderman, and she said, 'Butch, you don't have to worry,'" he says, referring to Dorothy Tillman, a major booster of the development deal. "I don't plan to worry either. I don't want to move. I plan to stay."

For the most part, each day is the same at Bacon's. At times there's a rush, and then things slow to a crawl. One Wednesday last month Tony Bacon sat at the front of the store scanning the paper, and Eric was in the back making a fedora. Butch sat at his desk, doing and saying nothing. Steward stood next to him, also doing and saying nothing. The bell buzzed, and a large man with a booming voice burst into the store.

"Butch Bacon--how ya doing, Butch Bacon?" he exclaimed.

It was Reverend Jerry Hodges, who counsels and preaches to inmates at various jails and prisons in the midwest. "I was just driving by, and I thought I'd drop in," he said, as Steward bustled over to serve him. "I'm not here for a hat--I'm looking for a coat."

While Hodges looked through the racks, Steward slipped into the back and turned on the radio. The sounds of gospel--someone singing about sweet Jesus--filled the store. Steward walked up to Hodges and said, "You're looking good, reverend."

"Oh, yes. I've been dieting. I've been drinking that Slim Fast, man. These pants were once skintight. Now they're falling off of me."

"I can see."

"I drink two shakes a day. What I do is put the shakes in the blender, and then I put me in a banana. The blender shakes it up, and I just gulp it down."

Hodges selected a full-length blue wool coat, which he took over to Butch Bacon's desk. As they chatted, the topic turned to recent headlines over Jesse Jackson's affair. "Well, you know," said Hodges, "the man who's called to gospel should not entangle himself."

Butch gently nodded.

"That said, Reverend Jackson is flesh and blood--and one of the greatest prophets, David, was involved in adultery," Hodges went on, his voice rising as if he were addressing a congregation. "The greatest thing the Bible taught me is recovery. Restitution is one of those things that shows us that God restores us."

He gathered up his coat and held out his hand to Butch. "Thank you, brother Bacon," he said, then swept out the door.

Steward walked to the rear of the store, turned off the radio, and put on a tape of dusties. The room filled with the sounds of "Oh, What a Night" by the Dells.

"Oh, man, it's been forever since I heard this song," exclaimed Tony Bacon.

Steward started to dance and sing with the music. The door buzzed, and another customer came in. "What's up, Butch?" the man called out as he made his way around the displays. Finally he held up a blue cap he found on a counter in the back.

"I want this cap," he said.

"That's my hat," said Steward.

"I still want it," the man said. "I'll buy it for $10."

"Man, I can't sell you my hat."

"Come on, man," said the customer, reaching for his wallet.

Steward turned to Butch. "Mr. Bacon, the man wants me to sell him my own hat."

Bacon silently stared at Steward.

Steward turned back to the customer. "See, the boss ain't gonna have that," he said. "We got a store full of hats--and you want to buy mine. Look around. You'll find something."

As the customer wandered among the hats, Steward chuckled softly. "I like to think I can sell a man anything. You can't walk in without me selling you something. But I'll be damned if I'm gonna sell him my own hat."

The door buzzed and into the shop walked a tall young man who'd come in a few weeks ago to buy a leopard-skin fedora. He hadn't had enough cash, so he was buying it on layaway. "I can't pay nothin' today," he said. "I just want to see it."

"No problem," said Steward. He opened a box behind Butch Bacon's desk and gave him the hat.

The young man held it at arm's length, then shook his head with a little smile. He put it on and eyed himself in a mirror.

"You look good in it," said Steward.

The young man adjusted the tilt so it hung low over his eyes.

"Look, man," said Steward, "you sure you can't put something down? Put something down now and you'll be that much closer."

The young man fished a 20 out of his wallet and handed it over to Steward, who took the hat and put it back in the box behind Bacon's desk. "I get paid on Friday," the young man told Bacon. "I'll be back with the rest of the money."

Bacon smiled and shrugged. "We'll be here," he said. "We ain't going nowhere else."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dorothy Perry.

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