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New Orleans hatter turns 90 on the job

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Headgear has been good to Sam Meyer, the New Orleans patriarch and retailing legend who presides over Meyer the Hatter. Meyer turned 90 Aug. 6, and spent it working in the cluttered CBD shop that his grandfather founded in 1894.

Meyer has been on the job since 1946, when he returned from military service in World War II and joined the family business. Now he runs the store with help from two sons, two daughters-in-law, a couple of grandsons and his 87-year-old wife, Marcelle.

The family had cupcakes at the store Aug. 6 but plans a big party later this month to celebrate both Meyer's birthday and the shop's 120th anniversary, grandson Chris Meyer said.

Meyer was matter-of-fact about working on his birthday: "What else should I do after 70 years at the shop? I wasn't brought up to chase balls on a golf course or putter in the garden."

He waved at his retail empire: a long narrow room filled with customers — both tourists and locals — and thousands of hats.

Want Saints gear? Meyer has it. Want a cherry-red homburg made of beaver fur? Meyer has that, too. Want to keep your head cool with an Italian straw boater? Meyer can make you look like a gondolier.

Stock is everywhere: stacked on counters, dangling from hooks, ranked on glass-fronted shelves and hidden inside towering piles of shipping cartons around the store. On a hot August afternoon, customers wandered in from St. Charles Avenue, snagged by a storefront window filled with a hundred styles of headgear.

"Hats aren't as popular as they once were, but there are 300 million people in this country and 12 million people passing through New Orleans airport every year. To me, that means each one of these hats is going appeal to a customer," Meyer said. "As a salesman, I have to be an optimist. That's the only way to look at life — and business."

Meyer acts like he talks.

On one typical day, he patted customers on the shoulder, fetched hats from cases, joked a little, and arranged a group purchase for the Zulu Parade Dukes. The Stetson rep called, and he went to the back office, gleefully talking shop on a land line.

"How come we're not on your website with the other dealers?" Meyer teased. "I bet we're the oldest Stetson account in the U.S., even if we're not a big Western account. Don't leave us out in the cold."

Meyer's good humor isn't an act. A few weeks ago, during Essence Fest, he was all over the store, shaking hands with regular out-of-town customers. Many Essence Fest "hat guys" make the pilgrimage to Meyer's shop on every New Orleans visit.

If "Mister Sam" sells you a hat, expect to get some history, too. It's a favorite subject for Meyer, who spends most of his leisure time reading about the past.

"In 1946, this place was very different. Every customer who came through the door wore a suit and tie — and all of them were local. My father fired my oldest son because he wouldn't wear a necktie in the shop. Now, everybody is casual, and we rely on our out-of-town business," Meyer said.

Meyer is a bit of a showman, too. In the store, he changes hats constantly, often wearing the half-dozen popular styles he custom-designed for New Orleans. And, yes, he talks: calling out to his staff, greeting familiar customers, fielding questions about invoices and shipping matters.

"To sell hats, you have to be verbal" Meyer said. "I can't stand around like a sphinx. I tell customer what I think, what looks good on them — and I ask a few questions without making it seem like an interrogation. If I need to smooth feathers, I do it — even if I want to hit someone on the head. Dealing with all kinds of people is part of the job."

At Meyer the Hatter, dealing with family also is part of the job.

When Meyer was asked to model a few of his popular hat designs, his wife sailed past and whispered: "He needs a haircut."

Sam and Marcelle married in 1959 and have worked together for decades.

"Sam is an enthusiast, but sometimes he orders too many hats and we fuss at him," Marcelle said. "And Sam doesn't have the patience to put hats away — all the little details that drive me crazy. It's good that the rest of the family is here as a buffer between us."

The shop is full of such banter and genial complaining. Sam takes it all in stride.

"This is a family business. And this is the way families are. Did you expect anything different?" he asked. "If I get angry, I walk around the block — and I don't have to do that very often."

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Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com

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