Hat Man Chuck Cotton carries on the traditions of the dapper and dashing
It was the golden age of haberdashery. Men wore their shoes shined, their clothes neat and pressed. A crisply knotted necktie and a hat was essential. The 1960s and ’70s were a period of booming business, says Chuck Cotton, owner of Bob’s Hatters.
‘“Before they got all these fancy tennis shoes people used to get their shoes shined,’” says Cotton, who started working at the hat shop with his father, Harold, in the early ’60s at the age of 10. The business stayed open serving customers until 10:30 p.m., and on weekends there was enough work to keep five boys busy earning money for movies and candy.
‘“That’s when this corner was really jumping,’” Cotton says.
The small hat and shoeshine business has been a staple in downtown Greensboro since 1935 when it was first owned by Robert Taylor, who ran the business out of the Clegg Hotel.
In 1948 Harold Cotton bought the business from a man named JC, who was shot while gambling. JC lived for a month during which time his sister convinced him to sell the business.
Today, paint is peeling from the walls and ceiling, and the tile beneath the vinyl-covered shoeshine chairs is cracked and missing in places. Hats fill the glass counters and shelves waiting for customers to pick them up, some from a day or two ago and others from years ago, their owners having forgotten or abandoned them. Cans of shoe polish, brushes and rags litter the raised tile area under the vinyl seats. Harold Cotton’s diploma in hat cleaning and shoe shining from the Chicago School of Shoe Rebuilding lies wrinkled and water-damaged under glass in a cheap aluminum frame that hangs on the wall behind the counter. It’s dated Nov. 28, 1950.
Across the room, looking almost as worn as the diploma, sits its owner, Harold, with a large, toothy grin that warms the interior of the room like the golden sun pouring in through the large windows beside him. He sits munching on fried chicken and greeting folks with a friendly hello as they come and go through the front door. He doesn’t work anymore; his son Chuck now does all of that.
The tiny building still elicits a nostalgic feel; it’s as if one can almost see customers bustling in and flipping a silver piece to an attendant while jazz or blues music wafts out into the summer air.
Cotton shapes a straw hat using the same steamer he used during the golden years, bending and shaping the brim to its original form in between steamings. One hat looks so old and crushed that, it seems beyond repair, but in Cottons large, ebony hands it slowly comes back to life.
Next he takes an old felt hat and sprays it thick with a foamy white starch. As the hat spins on a block mounted to a motor beneath the counter he brushes the starch in thoroughly. It, too, is shaped with steam.
With pride Cotton says that in blocking school his father had to learn to make a finished hat from a piece of shapeless felt.
After each hat is shaped by hand it is put in a form and covered tightly with a cloth. Then the brim is ironed to the shape of the form and the entire form is placed in the large, store window to dry in the sun.
Cotton shows off several finished hats, each seeming to have its own personality as if it has a story to tell of good days gone by.
‘“Texas Justice’” is on an old television in the corner where a friend of Cotton’s sits and watches. More people come in to visit than for services. Dr. Ernest Bradford, a regular visitor, sits in the window and reads a book. He’s the only person in the store wearing a hat. Three-year old Jarhyiene Alassane and his mother, Quanda Nunyvie, stop by to visit Harold Cotton.
‘“Careful!’” Harold warns Jarhyiene as the youngster climbs the shoeshine chairs and takes a seat, his feet dangling in mid air.
Robert Y. Johnson comes in for a shoeshine. He regularly comes in, he says.
‘“It’s a luxury everybody can afford,’” Chuck says of shoeshines. His shoeshines only cost three dollars.
As soon as Johnson takes a seat Cotton begins his work. He applies black shoe polish to Johnson’s shoes in an old-timey medicine-show fashion, tapping the can with a pat, pat, pat as he quickly works the polish. Then he brushes back and forth using two large, horsehair brushes in a swaying motion in which he lifts the brushes high into the air and swings them across the man’s shoe in a dive-bomber sort of way. Picking up an old shoe polish lid filled with water, he sprinkles the water on the shoes and buffs them to a gloss using a cloth. He goes around each heel, letting the cloth go with a snap during inspections of the process. During one last final touch Cotton applies a black gloss to the sides of the shoe’s soles. The job is finished and Johnson’s shoes glisten, but even if they didn’t Cotton’s performance makes you think you got more than your money’s worth.
Chuck Cotton is not only preserving the dying art of hat rebuilding and shoeshining, but he’s also deeply involved in preserving the blues in the Greensboro area. On May 7 at the Carolina Blues Festival in Center City Park he took home the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society’s annual Keepin’ the Blues Alive award. Cotton plays drums with bluesman Matt Hill, as well as with the Ladies Auxiliary Band, who play Wednesday’s at the Clubhouse.
Cotton picked up the drums in the late 1970s. He was a saxophone player, which he’d been since high school, and was playing a gig one night with a band. The drummer quit that night, he says, and if they were to get paid then someone had to play drums. He sat in that night and got through it. Over time he continued to play drums with the band and his talent developed. Today he has become one of Greensboro’s most well known and respected drummers.
The hat shop still makes enough to get by, Cotton says. Between that and his drumming he makes the income he needs.
Times have changed, and styles have changed. But in the little hat shop on McGee Street customer service is still given in full portions. And another piece of our history remains for us to enjoy a little while longer.
To comment on this story, e-mail Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org.