The 84-year-old man leans into the worn wooden bench, repeatedly pressing the dome of an embryonic hat with his hands, sculpting a stylish fedora out of the limp pelt of felted wool.
He is Roberto Macas, one of the last custom hat makers in Maryland. Surrounded by wooden hat molds, blocks, steam irons, brushes and an ancient sewing machine in the cryptlike basement of his store on downtown West Fayette Street, the Ecuadoran-born Macas says hat making is a dying craft, not for lack of business but because no one wants to do the work.
"The new generation, they go to high school," he said in heavily accented English. "They don't like to make hats. They all work in factories. Machines, machines, machines."
Those machines make the hats that Macas and his two sons, John, 55, and William, 51, sell upstairs as the mainstay of their business, a hole-in-the-wall emporium with the improbable name of Ecuador Panama Hat Co. on the window.
While the store does a brisk trade in ready-made Stetsons, Kangol Clippers, Indiana Jones specials and trendy unisex caps, Roberto Macas toils quietly in the basement, blocking, shaping, rubbing and ironing to create hats for the small stream of customers who want a little something extra for their heads.
The hats cost $75 to $100, compared with $15 to $25 for a factory hat off the peg.
A spokeswoman at the Headware Institute of America in New York says Macas is one of the few custom hat makers in the mid-Atlantic region south of New York.
Over the years, Macas has fashioned thousands of hats and watched the styles come and go. He has made hats for the small and the great, including, he says, movie comic Lou Costello and silent film cowboy Charles (Buck) Jones. Although the day when most American men wear hats is over, he says, the demand for custom hats has not waned.
Macas retired a year ago when he was 83, says son John, but so great was the protest by loyal customers that he agreed to come back to work this spring.
A small man with gnarled hands and thumbnails that are partially chewed away by chemical finishing powder, Macas, who emigrated from Ecuador in 1925 in pursuit of hat making, says he has not regretted it. He has been making hats at the same place on Fayette Street for 51 years after moving here from New York in 1934 to set up business.
"I like to do any kind of hats," he said. " . . . I don't like factory work. I make the whole hat from brim to finish."
The process is a tedious but loving one. He begins by measuring the size and shape of his customer's head with an expandable metal contraption called a conformer, which takes into account every unique curve and obtrusion of the human cranium. ("Some people have oblong heads, some have heads shaped like a peanut," said John Macas. "You'd be surprised.")
Next, Roberto Macas takes a rough-cut circle of material, usually felt -- a wool base interwoven with furs, hair and other fibers -- and places it over a smooth wooden block. It is one of scores of skull-like blocks in the basement workshop and the one that most closely matches his customer's head.
He forces the material down over the block, enlarging and shaping a dome that ultimately will become the crown of the hat. He rubs and shapes, shapes and rubs.
Next, he heats the material with a heavy steam iron, softening it so that he can shape it still further for the curvatures of his customer's head. Then comes the brim, cut to the customer's specification with a flat metal ring that fits around the crown of the hat. Finally, come the finishing touches: the brim border, leather sweatband inside and matching hatband outside, often with a small, colorful feather.
"The work takes many hours," said Roberto Macas, "but I like it."
There's more to it than the cutting and shaping of the hat material, John Macas says. "A good hat maker looks at the customer's height, his facial features and his build -- whether he's skinny or heavyset -- and then helps him decide which brim width or crown height makes him looks best."
John Macas said he and brother William did not take up their father's craft because "somebody had to be here to sell the factory-made hats. Somebody had to speak English at the front counter."
Custom hat making "is a dying business," he said. "It's like tailoring. Everybody's in a hurry to buy something off the shelf . . . . [Customers] don't appreciate the art that goes into this work . . .and the [workers] just don't want to use their hands."