Bulletin Board Diaries: Sisters Of The Traveling Hats
When you enter the small lobby of the Country Kitchen on Interstate 71 in Lebanon, Ohio, the first thing you're likely to notice is a set of side-by-side bulletin boards nearly covered with business cards, flyers and brochures.
In the age of online advertising, it looks like more than a few people still choose this old-school method of promoting the items and services they have to offer.
Bulletin Board Diaries is WYSO's new, occasional series that introduces us to some of the Ohioans who still use this advertising method to get their messages out.
The first entry in the diary begins with a colorful, quirky business card found at the Country Kitchen, advertising a traveling hat shop and an enterprise called “It’s Hats.”
With a call to the number on the "It's Hats" business card, I was introduced to Lisa Capehart, a retired social worker who always had a love for vintage clothing. Over the years she started selling some of the items from her collection, and that's how the business began.
“About six years ago we started focusing on vintage hats because vintage hats sold really well," Lisa tells me. "We now sell just about every kind of hat you can imagine."
The top hats, bowlers, fedoras, flat caps, pork pies, outbacks, and others, sold so well that Lisa and her life and business partner, Karen Dotson, decided to take their hat business on the road.
Business partner #3, Sally
It was a brutally cold day when I got to meet the hat ladies in person. They were parked outside the Antique Village in Centerville. Lisa told me to be on the lookout for the traveling van they call Long Tall Sally. Pulling in to the parking lot, it doesn’t take long to spot the large, white van.
"You can’t sneak away to the donut shop or down to the local bar in this van,” Lisa laughs.
Long Tall Sally is a Ford 350 Transit cargo van. Lisa and Karen drive it to roughly 30 festivals throughout the year. Inside the back of the van are stacks of hats, displays and other materials the women use to set up shop when they're on the road.
Lisa and Karen have turned the front cargo spaceinto a virtual home-away-from-home. It houses an electrical converter so they can plug into camp sites, a microwave for cooking, and two, fairly small benches for sleeping.
Lisa is smaller in stature but big on personality, and while Karen seems a little more reserved, both women have a warm and welcoming presence about them. And, perhaps not surprisingly, each one is wearing a hat.
"I am wearing a hat buy one of the oldest continually operating hat companies in the United States out of Denver, Pennsylvania," Lisa tells me. " It's an outback, it's gray wool, they make them there on sight, and F&M Hats has been in business since 1904."
Karen humbly tells me she's "just wearing a little cap with ear flaps," adding, "we deal with a place called Dorfman Pacific, which is like the largest wholesale hat dealer in the world, and this is one of their hats."
Funding the traveling hat shop
The Antique Village is one of three locations where the hat ladies sell their hats year-round. Inside the 38,000 sq. ft. building, there are some 300 vendor booths packed with items for sale.
Lisa stops to straighten up a small display they have near the front of the store. She points to several hats on display there.
“These whimsical, sort of character hats are made in Peru. They're a fair-trade product where it's primarily women that make them and paid a living wage rather than a pittance, as many people are taken advantage of in the production of products."
Further back in the store is a larger space the women have rented to sell more inventory. Here, on the shelves are elegantly displayed antiques, knick-knacks, clothing items, and more hats, both new and vintage.
Lisa says many of the contemporary hats they sell have been purchased from wholesale hat manufacturers and distributors, and it’s here that I learn something new about old hats.
“People from the 1940’ and 50’s, the vintage hats that you find are almost all right around size 7, which is very small, a very small head.”
“Are our heads getting bigger?” I ask.
“Definitely, heads are getting bigger,” she tells me.
Upon checking further, I find there’s actually science to back that up. A 2012 National Geographic article pointed to research that shows human heads have gotten about 8 millimeters bigger since around 1825. There’s actually quite a history on the changing size of the human head over the last several hundred thousand years, but we’ll save that for another day.
The money Lisa and Karen earn at the brick-and-mortar locations help support their travels. They sell their hats across the state, and at festivals as far away as Florida.
"Doing a music festival that lasts for several days is really cool," Lisa says. "Because the people are there usually for the whole duration of the festival, so they’ll come back to your booth several times and you’ll chit chat and you’ll get to know one another and It’s a really fun dynamic.”
“It's a fun gig," adds Karen. "When we’re at festivals, I mean I don’t want to disparage anyone, but we’re usually the ones that our booth has lots of people in it, and I think it’s because it’s a lot of fun."
What the future holds
"Fun" precisely describes the time Lisa, Karen, and visitors to their booth had at the recent Cincinnati Music Festival.
Karen says there’s magic in finding the right hat, which can really highlight a someone's unique personality - especially when that someone tries on a hat, maybe for the first time.
“We call them virgin hat people,” she jokes. “There are a lot of men especially, that they’ve never seen a quality hat before, so when they come in and they put on a nice outback that makes them look handsome and sexy -- and they know it when they look it the mirror -- and it just brightens up their face. They’re just like ‘Wow, I love this hat!' That's where the fun is."
Lisa and Karen admit, however, that the traveling, and constant set-up and tear-down on the road is hard work, physically. They’re both in their sixties and think they can continue for another two or three years. They're already open to to the idea of bringing someone else into the business to help out.
Yet, when asked what brings them joy right now, Lisa and Karen say 'It’s Hat’s!' and the stories those hats help people tell.
This story is part of Bulletin Board Diaries. In the age of online advertising, some people still choose the old school method of promoting things they want to buy and sell: by posting an advertisement on bulletin boards found in neighborhood laundromats, restaurants and grocery stores around town. WYSO’s Bulletin Board Diaries series will take listeners on a personal, sometimes funny, always surprising journey of discovery, to reveal some of the hidden stories of the people behind these bulletin board advertisements. Who are they? What experiences can they share? And what do their stories tell us about life in the Miami Valley?