Merlene Davis: Iconic hat shop will close after this year's Derby

Lucille Jackson says hats are the first thing to go in a bad economy. She is closing her store, Hunter's Hatters.
Lucille Jackson says hats are the first thing to go in a bad economy. She is closing her store, Hunter's Hatters.

Lucille Jackson, owner of Hunter's Hatters, is calling it quits.

"This will be my last Derby," she said. "This is my swan song."

Jackson, 80, has trimmed, accessorized, fitted and sold hats to Derbygoers and churchgoers since 1984, about three years before she retired after three decades as a first-grade teacher in Fayette and Anderson counties.

"It has been a blessing to have had it this long," Jackson said. "I had hoped and prayed that my family, my granddaughter and my daughter, would want to carry it on, but that is not to be."

A combination of factors led to this decision, she said.

Hats are a luxury item that has been sidelined from priority lists by the slowed economy, she said.

"Hats are the first to go," she said. "That is my main product. With the economy the way it is today, people will recycle what they have."

Also, Jackson said, her customer base is dwindling.

"I've lost a lot of customers due to illness and death," she said. "Older ladies dressed for occasions, especially church. Younger people don't wear hats as much."

Add to that the increased shipping costs. To keep her customers happy, "I have to eat the shipping and higher salaries that the manufacturers pay," Jackson said. "And the overhead for this building has gone up."

There was no way she could continue doing that.

"It eats up what profits you have to sustain a business," she said. "And if you can't re-invest in the business, it is not a business."

There once was a long list of loyal customers who only shopped by appointment with Jackson, seeking the undivided attention she gives. Sometimes a session lasted two hours.

"I don't let you wander around," she said. "I sit you down and work with you to get the best hat for you and your garment.

"I get you dressed for the right occasion without interruption and you have someone who will give you an opinion," Jackson said. "I think that means an awful lot."

And it is not just any opinion. It is an honest one that customers can take or leave.

But if they don't take her advice, Jackson said, and choose a hat that isn't right for them, "I tell them don't tell anyone they bought it from me. I need the business, but it is not going to help me if you are going to look like a fool in something you are wearing."

Jackson was born and raised in Lexington, and earned her teaching degree from Kentucky State University. She married first at 21 and had two children before her husband left her. She divorced him after 11 years of marriage, and raised the children with the help of God and her parents, she said.

She opened the boutique in a small corner of the Harris House of Flowers on Brown Avenue, which was owned by the parents of a student to whom she had given special attention. The grand opening was June 14, 1984, but the shop closed five months later.

Her late husband, Johnny R. Jackson, whom she married when her children were in their late teens, encouraged her to open another shop, which she did in the spring of 1985, near the corner of Short and Upper streets.

Johnny Jackson, a carpenter, built the display shelves and kept the shop in good condition. She named the shop for her father, Hunter Griffin, a painter, who was named after J.E. Hunter, the first black surgeon at St. Joseph Hospital in Lexington.

In 1989, she moved to the current location, 140 Deweese Street. Since then, the boutique has survived two recessions and some economic downswings, but the current circumstances have been insurmountable.

Jackson's daughter, Janet Lynem, and her cousin Barbara Barber, have been invaluable, she said. Lynem has driven Jackson to Atlanta to buy hats and Barber has decorated and helped in the boutique. Her son, William "Chip" Bush, serves as maintenance man and bodyguard.

Still, though, it is time. Jackson hails from an era when appropriate dress was the call of the day. Women wore hats to church and dressed to the nines for dinner outings.

"You go to banquets and see how people dress," she said, shaking her head. "How can you go out to dinner looking like you are going to clean the yard?"

This is a new day. Jackson said she will miss the joy of fitting customers correctly and seeing the smiles on their faces.

The closing date is unsure, she said, depending on the legalities and logistics given to her by her attorney and accountant. But she hopes to have one big final fashion show. One last time to show young women what sophisticated dress is all about.

Regardless, the shop will not be open for another Derby.

This year, however, she is open by appointment only until two weeks before Derby when the shop will open daily. And even after closing, she will come to the aid of her loyal customers who call.

For now, you can still hear Jackson say a hat should be worn on the forehead or slightly tipped over the right eye for a debonair look.

"A hat may not be all that pretty," she said, "but if it is worn right and complements what you are wearing, you are in business.

"If you put on a hat like a cowboy, then you are in trouble."