Sarah Gilbert has lived in Mile End for more than 20 years. From 2008-2011, she wrote a blog, Mile Endings, in which she memorialized certain neighbourhood personalities and institutions before they were swept away by time. We find them to be written with a particular sensibility and a keen sense of observation. In Sarah’s words, they were her “love letter to the neighbourhood”. Sarah Gilbert teaches in the Department of English at Dawson College and her writing has appeared in various publications.
Hats off to Mr. Shinder! brings together three articles that Sarah published beginning in 2008: a portrait of the Maple Leaf Hat and Cap Co., one of the last needle-trade businesses remaining in the neighbourhood, among the dozens that had flourished between the 1920s and 1990s. In the second article, written early in 2010, Sarah explained how its heartbroken owner, Barry Shinder, had to resign himself to its closure. You will learn about a happy ending in the final article, written in August 2011.
This is the start of a series that Mile End Memories is planning, to republish Sarah’s portraits along with a new French translation by Valérie Palacio-Quintin. It is part of our efforts to preserve the memory of this constantly changing neighbourhood, which is our raison d’être. We will continue to add new articles to our site regularly.
Caps for Sale
11 November 2008 – original publication
As soon as the laundromat turns into a bistro, or the garage on the corner becomes a condo, or the appliance repair shop reopens as a boutique, their old selves evaporate.
Sometimes I walk down St-Viateur trying to remember. What was the crèpe place before the big flat griddles and the paper cones for take-out crepes arrived? What used to be on the corner where the fancy ink and stationery shop is? The chocolatier two doors down sells tiny, pretty chocolates for $2.50 each. What was there before?
The neighbourhood is changing faster than I can remember.
Maybe that’s why I’m so happy to find Barry Shinder at Maple Leaf Hat and Cap Company, on St-Laurent, north of St-Viateur. When I ask him how long he’s been here, he crows, “Too long!”
He’s stitching caps on the heavy black Singer sewing machine once used by his father when he started the business 78 years ago, on St-Laurent between Pine and Prince Arthur.
“I’ve been on St-Laurent all my life,” Shinder says. “Me and my brothers used to lie on the sewing tables as babies.” He lives, with his wife and daughter, in the apartment where he grew up, above the cap factory. He works weekends and nights, sometimes until 11 p.m. “It’s convenient. I’m a workaholic.”
Shinder, who is 61, with an athletic frame and a quick wide smile, picks up a flat cap, also known as a newsboy, or a Dutch cap, and admires it. “The beauty of men’s hats? The style is what it was in my father’s day in the 1930s and it’s still going.”
The caps are like the ones stacked high in Caps for Sale, the classic children’s book about the cap vendor who falls asleep under a tree and wakes to find that monkeys have stolen his pile of caps. Shinder’s 2008 models are dark coloured wool, tweed, or corduroy patchwork, with a brim and a button on top. Some have a snap on the brim.
Talking to Barry Shinder is like finding the living link between the neighbourhood’s past and present. I’ve been in Mile End through a decade and a half of changes, but he’s been here for 55 years. It’s like stepping into the green-walled grilled-bologna-serving Wilensky’s Light Lunch, or right into The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.
Shinder remembers what used to be what around here: “The Mile End Station was over where Million Tiles is. Me and my cousin used to hop trains to Outremont…General Motors was on the corner of St-Viateur, where Yellow Shoes is…Before Cafe Olimpico was Open da Night it was Tony and Franco’s.” He piles up the layers of history like stacking caps, one on top of another and another.
He talks without stopping his work which at the moment is stitching sweatbands into poorboy caps. “I do the work of three and so we’re actually six,” he explains, gesturing to include the three Haitian women who’ve been sewing for him for a combined total of 39 years. Margaret, Jacqueline and Rose use words like “cool” and “respectful” to describe their boss.
“Every year it gets tougher,” Shinder says of the business, citing the flood of inexpensive imports from China as a factor. “At one point I wanted my son to build it up. But why ruin his life? He’s going to work 60-70 hours a week in here? Is there a future in this? I can’t see it. I’m a dying breed.”
After he stitches the sweatbands, one by one, into a pile of caps, Margaret takes them and sews in the label of a clothing company. As it was in Shinder’s father’s day, 90 percent of Maple Leaf’s work is contract.
The caps they make will sell at the historic, high-end Henri-Henri hat store on Ste-Catherine, or at Hiver en Folie shops across Quebec. The hats get out there, but Maple Leaf Hat and Cap company remains strangely invisible.
You could be wearing a Maple Leaf Cap and never know it.
Unless you wander into the small one-room factory and convince Shinder to stop sewing long enough to sell you one himself. And if you do, that’s a bonus, because then you know the story.
It’s a little like knowing that the building on the corner of St-Viateur and St-Laurent, before it became the Cagibi with the tofu wraps and DJs, was a pharmacy, and long before the racks were stocked with zines, medicines and remedies lined the wooden apothecary shelves.
But in the case of Barry Shinder and Maple Leaf Hat and Cap Company, it’s not just the story of what used to be what, it’s what still is.
End of an Era
27 January 2010 – original publication
The sign in the window of Maple Leaf Hat and Cap Company reads, “Closing. Everything Must Go.”
I can’t believe it. I was in here just a month ago. Barry Shinder was sewing caps and telling me that business was slow.
He’s being saying that since I first met him a year and a half ago, so it’s a scenario I could comfortably imagine repeating itself for years to come. I would go in to buy gift caps and visit my favourite piece of living history and Barry would be there, sewing away as he’s been doing for his entire life.
But he’s closing up shop.
The little factory on the first floor of the St.-Laurent triplex is more chaotic than usual. Bolts of fabric are heaped willy-nilly on the cutting tables next to half-sewn caps, boxes of brims and big juice jars full of snaps. Orange For Sale or Sold! stickers dot the old metal shelves and cabinets.
Barry Shinder’s manufacturing costs became too high.
Last week his main client, the garment company who contracted him to make their caps, said they couldn’t afford his prices anymore.
They offered him a job. So now, instead of sewing caps in the business his father started on the Main 80 years ago, Barry will commute to work in the Chabanel district and get paid a wage. No overhead, no staff (for years he’s employed three workers during his busy season).
“I’ll be a worker instead of a boss,” he says. “I’m losing money here so anything I make will be better. It’ll be money with no headaches!”
Barry Shinder doesn’t look like a man without headaches. He’s losing weight and sleep worrying about how he’ll manage to get rid of everything, rent out his 1800 square feet of factory space, pay off his debts and change his life.
“I’ve never worked anywhere else. This is my whole life.” Then he pauses and adds optimistically, “At least I’ll get up in the morning knowing I have work. And imagine, an 8-4 job! Instead of seven days a week!”
He’ll be bringing his dad’s old Singer sewing machine with him to sew caps. “That is one thing I’d never sell,” he declares.
While we’re talking, the owner of a hat shop in Côte de Neiges comes in to scoop up some stock at reduced prices. Usually, he goes to a wholesaler where all the hats are made in China and sell for a maximum of $5 each. “Five dollars, and that’s top quality!” he tells Barry. “A simple cap, like this,” he says, picking up a cotton flat cap, “20 cents.”
“But the plastic in that brim costs me 45 cents!” Barry objects. He turns to me and sighs. “There you have the whole story.”
A triplex in Mile End is valuable real estate these days, yet Barry says he can’t imagine selling. So at least there’s that. The rows of sewing machines, the stacks of caps and the dust from decades of fabric-cutting will all be gone. And what will become of the shelves of old blocks he used for shaping caps? At least Barry will still be around.
“If I had to move out of this area it’d kill me,” he says of the block where he’s lived since 1953 when he was six years old. “I could walk around here blindfolded.”
As I leave, wet snow is falling and I notice that just north of Barry’s place, in what used to be a neighbourhood tavern full of battered wicker chairs, a fancy new bar has opened up. Change is everywhere. Everything must go.
Endings and Beginnings
13 August 2011 – original publication
“Manufacturing is a tough business,” Barry Shinder told a class of Concordia design students who were seated around his old factory workshop on St. Laurent Blvd. north of St. Viateur.
Three years ago, Barry Shinder was still running the cap-making business his father had started in 1930. A year and a half later, he went out of business.
For months, the space was only sporadically occupied.
Then, one day in February, Anne-Marie Laflamme and Catherine Métivier happened by.
“The first time we came in, we felt it was like a museum,” said Laflamme, 27. “We spent all afternoon asking Barry for stories. We fell in love with the space and the story.”
The tattooed students took notes, sketched or recorded the talk on mp3 players. They were there as part of an open house hosted by Laflamme and Métivier. The young women are the building’s new tenants and run atelier b., a clothing label dedicated to sustainable textiles and local production.
They plan on preserving the factory’s history by keeping Shinder’s massive cutting table, two sewing machines and the heavy cast iron button and snap-covering tools.
Most of the sewing machines they couldn’t even give away.
“We saved a few,” said Laflamme. “There was one we put out with the garbage. When the garbage truck came for it, Catherine was crying like a baby.”
Shinder, who’s spent his whole life working those machines, is resigned to them ending up on the garbage heap. He’s glad, if a little surprised, that Laflamme and Métivier want to keep some equipment.
“I just hope they do well,” he said.
Last year, when Shinder had to close the business he was so anxious his weight plummeted from 195 to 130 pounds. “I’ll be 65 in January,” he said. “I’m computer illiterate. I was good at one thing only. Production.”
Some of the students examined their nails and closed their eyes.
Shinder took a job sewing for Magill Hat, the company that used to contract him to make caps. He decided to sell the building where he’d worked and lived for almost 60 years.
“I think I’m more relaxed now,” he said, citing his current weight as 165 lbs. “Thursday I get a paycheque, and it’s my money. I have an 8-4 job and that’s it.” Shinder now works in the Chabanel district and is moving to Little Italy.
Métivier and Laflamme plan to use the 1800-square-foot space as a store and a workshop for sewing samples.
“Just don’t live to work,” was Shinder’s advice. “When you’re in business you have no friends.”
“But everyone is our friend!” said Laflamme. “It’s important for us to work with people we like.”
Two generations, two different business paradigms. Were the students listening?
“I still say I do the work of one and a half people,” said Shinder, of his skill at producing caps for his boss. “But I only get $2-3 more than minimum wage, and I have 50 years of experience. Still, I’m probably making more there than I ever made here.”
Afterword, January 2014
Anne-Marie and Catherine have been successful and still operate their business, Atelier B. (http://www.atelier-b.ca/) in Barry Shinder’s old shop. Even if the only constant in Mile End’s history is that it is always transforming, the two partners have managed to maintain some continuity with an activity that was at the heart of Mile End’s story for over a century.