Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Caps for Sale

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.


Maple Leaf Hat and Cap Mfg. Co.
5758 Boul. St. Laurent