$1 Million in Free Advertising a Hats-Off Salute to S.D. Store

Times Staff Writer

Lew Anfanger picked up the phone.

“Good morning, sir,” said the voice on the other end, “how would you like to have $1 million worth of free advertising?”

Anfanger winced. This is the kind of call he hates, an unwelcome intrusion in an otherwise productive day. He more or less said get on with it.

The voice insisted. “Sir, we’re not kidding . . . “


What do you know, they weren’t .

The call was from a New York ad agency representing Visa, the international credit card. Because Anfanger’s Western Hat Works in downtown San Diego accepts Visa--and not American Express--he was a candidate for a full-page ad in a satchel-load of national magazines.

Right, he said.

No, it’s true , the ad spokesman said. Just apply, and you’ll be considered.


Not only was Anfanger considered, he got the prize--$1 million worth of free advertising, just as the voice promising riches claimed he would. In the current issue of National Geographic, Anfanger’s picture adorns the back cover. Similar ads are set to appear in Omni, Time, People, Money and at least six other periodicals.

“Seventy-five years ago,” the ad copy reads, “the best hatmaker in Warsaw set up shop right in the middle of downtown San Diego. Today when you walk into Western Hat Works, you can still buy a hat from a man whose father was a haberdasher to royalty.

“But it may take you some time. Because if you can’t find a hat you like from among the 20,000 he has in stock, Lew Anfanger will custom-design a masterpiece just for you. So if you want one, you better go there in person. And you better bring your Visa card. Because Lew won’t take your measurements over the phone. And he won’t take American Express .”

The ad is a hair misleading. Since the information was gathered, Anfanger, 62, has eased into semi-retirement. His son, 36-year-old Martin Anfanger, who worked for his dad for more than a dozen years, has taken over the store.

Martin isn’t mentioned in the ad. When talks with the ad agency were taking place, he happened to be dating an executive with American Express. “Would that be a problem?” he asked.

Of course not, the agency said. But where’s Martin’s picture? Oh, well . . .

For the record, he’s thrilled with the ad. Already it’s brought “a ton” of business, not to mention phone calls from friends old and new offering congratulations and heartfelt celebrations.

It’s not hard to sense, however, that a part of Martin wishes he were in the ad. It isn’t easy taking over a business from your father, when your father and the business he ran for 39 years are a local institution.


Customers still waltz in, looking for Lew, asking for Lew, wondering where old Lew got away to. Martin doesn’t mind--at least outwardly--and, good-natured soul that he is, answers with the kind of honesty and grace that wear like family emblems.

“I’m very excited and happy about the change,” said Martin, silhouetted by a billow of steam rising up. He was busy blocking and flanging hats. (Blocking, Lew explained, is giving shape to the crown. Flanging is shaping the brim.)

“I like being my own man,” Martin said. “I don’t like giving orders, but I like givin’ ‘em better than takin’ ‘em. Hey, about that ad. I love it, man. Why? My dad deserves every darn thing he gets.”

Martin is a big man with a dark beard and big Western boots. When the Western craze hit around 1979, spurred by the popularity of the movie “Urban Cowboy,” Martin and his dad were ready. The store did more business from 1979 to 1982 than it ever has, and Martin--who enjoys the Western life style apart from its riches to a cowboy hatmaker--wishes it would all come back. Boy, howdy, it was good .

But it’s still good. It’s sometimes taxing, even fearful and dangerous, running a store in the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter, where, more than once, street vagrants and thieves have broken into the shop or threatened the Anfangers with fists, switch blades and “curse words.”

Despite all that--and it “do get old,” Martin said, laughing--he wouldn’t think of changing locations. He just signed a five-year lease with an option on several more after that. He’s encouraged by restaurants in the area--Blinchiki and the Golden Lion--and though it sounds strange, dealing with the public (even the sometimes-rowdy public) has, he says, helped to curb a once-volatile temper.

Of course, the most upset he ever got was when someone (he barely remembers who) got “disrespectful” with his dad. The bond between the two surfaces in situations like that.

The tradition of Western Hat Works goes back to 1922, when Lew’s father--the Polish immigrant referred to in the ads--came to San Diego with an artistry in hat making. The shop tried several locations before settling on the corner of 5th Avenue and E Street in 1976. Lew remembers the first store on 4th Avenue, between A and B--he also remembers living in the back. He remembers he and his brother, now a principal in a local school, sharing a meal for a quarter, going to movies for a dime.


The business has changed almost as much as society has. Lew remembers the golden years of the Roaring ‘20s, when just about every head wore a hat of some kind. The evolution of hat-wearing has come to mean variety, he said, to the point where someone wanting a brown derby holds equal footing with Indiana Jones and a stockyard full of cowboys.

That doesn’t make the business easier, just more interesting.

“Each hat presents a different challenge,” Lew said. “In more ways than one.”

One gentleman came in with a damp, dumpy-looking hat and a bold demand.

“Make it like new,” he barked.

“We hear it all the time,” Lew said. “We can’t always make it like new, but we can make it presentable.”

The Anfanger store features dozens of brands--Resistol, Beaver Brand, Adam Miller, Borsalino--and materials ranging from rabbit to beaver to straw. Because the family name is legendary in hat circles, the Anfangers have an edge in buying and selling. If an Anfanger calls the Resistol factory in Garland, Tex., the voice on the other end usually knows right off who he’s talking to.

Voices on the other end mean something to the Anfangers these days. Someday, Martin may hear a voice wanting him to sell. Depending on his mood, depending on the time, he just might agree.

He doesn’t want to work as hard as his father did, which, ironically, is the same thing Lew said of his father--and the reason for an “early” retirement.

Martin doesn’t have children, and his sister’s kids may not want to run the business. But that’s the future, and at the moment he isn’t worried about tomorrow.

The present, like all of those hats, is a challenge every day.