Before Ray Panice goes out and about, he makes sure to don a hat, usually a gray or brown fedora. “A hat makes you look like something,” he says. “It has style and character, and it identifies you. People can see you from a mile away, and they know it’s you. My wife always knows that it’s me across the way.

“Hats were once a popular item,” he laments, “but now people walk around in T-shirts and jeans and caps on their heads, if that. When you go out to a restaurant or a club, the trouble is that there’s no place to hang your hat. If there’s a coat-check room, they stack up the hats like cordwood, and afterward they’re greasy and messed up.”

But Panice keeps the faith. For a half century he’s been associated with New World Hatters, a West Garfield Park emporium that deals in fine headgear for the west side’s more elegant men. “Ray’s a good hat man,” says George Stratton, whose family once ran a competing shop down the block and now manufactures police caps in Bellwood. “He knows the business, and he serves the neighborhood–there aren’t many like him left anymore.”

New World Hatters occupies a busy stretch of West Madison dominated by Korean-run shoe and clothing stores. The store’s most dramatic element is the sign out front, an upright black-and-white affair. It looks like it should be lit up, yet it never is–Panice can’t see spending the money for the electricity. In the tile-floored showroom, worn display cases are piled high with ready-to-wear fedoras, homburgs, derbies, and Kangol caps. New World has traditionally done big business in brightly colored, broad-brimmed “pimp hats.” They fell out of favor for a while, but “today everybody wears them,” says Panice of his lemon yellow and bright green versions.

The showroom is the province of sales manager Marvin Sing. “You see a young man come in, he’ll want a cap,” says Sing. “You take an old guy, he’ll want an expensive hat. I know. I’ve been selling for years.”

Panice hangs out in the back room, a narrow space containing a long workbench, hatboxes with chapeaus back from cleaning, and wooden blocks and flanges, the essential tools of the trade. Here, day in and day out, Panice blocks, trims, and finishes hats. At 75 he cuts an inauspicious figure in suspenders (to hold up pants stuffed with pills and keys) and black Reeboks, cushiony sneakers he’s so fond of that his wife has to beg him to put on dress shoes for weddings. For entertainment there’s Dr. Laura on the radio. “To hear her talk you’d think the world was on its last legs,” says Panice. “She tickles the shit out of me.”

Since felt, the material used in good hats, is often in short supply, and because New World Hatters is a modest operation, Panice doesn’t produce as many new hats as he once did, though if he comes by a choice piece of fur he can’t resist turning out a special creation. Mostly he refashions old hats to fit new times and different heads. “Sometimes a person’ll inherit a hat, or he’ll get one someway,” says Panice. “I’ll cut the brim and redo the crown. If it’s a decent hat, I can do almost anything with it.”

Panice likes to name hats after movie actors and the roles they’re associated with. In his lexicon a homburg becomes a Marlon Brando, and a gambler’s hat turns into a Clark Gable. “See this Superfly?” he asks, holding up a black straw number with a big brim. “It’s a good job, no? You could never tell it looked different than it does now.”

The son of a plumbing contractor, Panice grew up near Midway Airport. When he left the army in 1948, the only job that materialized was at New World, which his aunt and uncle had been running at Madison and Kedzie. “My uncle had built up quite a trade,” says Panice. “He sold hats, and he also had a wholesale business where he picked up hats from tailors and cleaners in the city and suburbs for cleaning. But my uncle had passed away, and naturally my aunt, who did the trimming, needed someone to help her.” Ray became that someone, along with his older brother, Herman. “I’d have liked to have done something mechanical, in maintenance, rather than working with hats,” he says, “but I got married and ended up staying in the business.”

The area around the store started changing in the 1950s. Ray and Herman were in charge by 1968, when riots erupted following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. “We had friends in the police department, and they told us to get the hell out of there,” recalls Panice. “We left with our hamburger dinner in the frying pan.” The hat shop was burned to the ground.

Within six months, though, New World settled into its current location, which had been a music store. “I didn’t want to go back into the neighborhood, but we owed people money,” says Panice. “We scavenged for equipment, and suppliers gave us stock. We managed to put the shop back together again.” Herman retired in 1980, around the time Stratton Hats headed for the suburbs, enabling Marvin Sing, who had worked there, to transfer his allegiance to New World. The retailers that once anchored the Madison and Pulaski shopping district–L. Fish Furniture, the Three Sisters department store, and the Burny Brothers Bakery–have closed or moved on, but New World has stayed.

“I know a great majority of the customers,” says Panice. “Some have been with us since day one, and now their sons and grandsons shop with us. There aren’t many hat stores left, at least out our way.” Before the Bulls became superstars, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant would wander in because they patronized a barber nearby. When the TV series The Untouchables was being filmed here in the early 90s, New World cleaned the hats of the Frank Nitti and Eliot Ness characters. And U.S. Congressman Danny Davis shows up regularly.

Panice likes to understate his talents. “This is hack work. It’s a no-brainer, like what a carpenter would do. Now you can’t be an idiot to do it, but it’s not a hard business to learn either. But I do know what to do with a hat. You get adapted, and it becomes routine. Besides, this keeps me from doing the dishes at home.” Yet his pride betrays him. As I leave, Panice chides, “Next time you come, wear a hat.”

New World Hatters is located at 4146 W. Madison (773-638-4900). Ready-made hats go for $50 or $60, with those made-to-order costing $70 or more. Caps are $40, except for those in a castoff bin by the showroom window. “They’re $3.95,” says Panice. “You can wear them on blind dates.” A hat cleaning runs $12. Hours are 9 to 5 Mondays through Saturdays. –Grant Pick

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ray Panice photo by Nathan Mandell.