Yael Menahem was in desperate need of sun protection after forgetting her new hat on the train. It was a sweltering Tel Aviv afternoon and she, an elegant lady with frizzy dark hair, still had a lot of shopping to do.
Dalia Varman, owner of Dalia’s Hats, a tiny storefront on Nahalat Binyamin Street, jumped into action.
A friendly, no-nonsense woman who naturally makes her customers feel at home, Varman navigated her packed 17-square-meter (183-square-foot) shop — overflowing with fedoras, Panama hats, beanies, bowlers and a huge variety of women’s sun hats — while doting on Menahem with practiced ease.
With a series of questions, Varman identified an appropriate range of materials, styles and possibilities, producing a growing stack of potential hats. She skillfully mixed and matched ribbons, bows, straps and other accouterments, and adjusted sizes up or down for the perfect fit.
After appraising herself in a number of different hats via the well-placed mirrors around the shop, customer Menahem found one to her liking and the transaction was concluded.
Later, fondly looking around her iconic shop, Varnan reflected that “it’s possible to say this has already been in the family for 120 years — three generations in this business.”
She was referring to her grandparents, who had a hat business in prewar Lodz, Poland. Varman’s father immigrated to pre-state Palestine, met her mother, a sabra, and together they opened their own hat-selling operation in 1942. Varman herself basically grew up in the shop.
That same minuscule business is still run by Varman as Dalia Covaim (Dalia’s Hats). The shop is an outlier, one of the last remaining old-family businesses in the Nahalat Binyamin neighborhood, which was Tel Aviv’s one-time garment district but is now an artsy hotspot.
Just around the corner from the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, the store presents an old-country sensibility, selling quality hats but “no brand names,” Varman said. For the last several decades she has created her own line of custom hats and headgear for religious Jewish women, though she herself is secular.
There’s a practical, classic fashion sense present. There is nothing too outrageous or trendy in the selection, nothing for camping or outdoorsmanship — just solid options for the urban shopper or beachgoer, with a few fancier items for special events or holidays.
“Our prices are actually very reasonable,” Varman observed. Due to the different materials and styles available, prices range from NIS 30 (roughly $8) for a simple high-quality baseball cap with no logo to NIS 250 ($65) for a fancy “winter hat” of thicker materials. Her custom women’s head coverings and hats range from NIS 90 ($24) to around NIS 150 ($39).
Varman has few old photographs or mementos from the old days, and just one small picture of her mother tucked unobtrusively on the wall. Her business has a minimal web presence and, when asked if she had considered selling online through a website or on Esty.com, the popular marketplace for handcrafted or custom goods, Varman said she is simply not interested.
Although “business has definitely decreased” over the years because of internet commerce and changing tastes, the store has survived, said Varman, thanks to a loyal customer base and good location.
Another factor is her own charisma, which was on display during The Times of Israel’s recent visit not long after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Varman noted that her business is seasonal and that because people tend to make purchases before the holidays, it was going to be a slow day.
The first to arrive was a thin, friendly man, who remained standing in the doorway. It was Amnon Clore, an artist/actor and resident of the adjacent Neve Tzedek neighborhood. Varman explained that he often comes to arrange the well-lit window display. He also started the shop’s modest Facebook page.
Igal Babayof arrived next, a distinguished Tel Aviv gentleman on a shopping expedition, together with Menahem — the aforementioned forgetful customer in need of sun protection. Babayof, a stylist and hairdresser in his early 60s, related how he used to come to the shop as a child, when his father would buy hats here. “People are still looking for nostalgia, and come here,” he said.
The lighted window display looks dazzling at night, he noted, for “all the people who wander around here, tourists and who knows what.” Many — but not all — of the old fabric shops, kiosks and family businesses have been replaced with trendy bars and restaurants whose tables spill out onto the sidewalk in the evening.
“A lot of people tell me I should open at night,” Varman said, because of the crowds and obvious potential for customers, but she refuses.
In fact, the shop hours are fairly limited. Varman has had a part-time employee at the store for the last three decades and considers herself semi-retired. The old-fashioned sign on the door reads 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. Sunday through Thursday (and till 3 p.m. on Tuesdays). But these hours are sometimes a suggestion, as “I close when I want to,” she said with a laugh.
Varman rents the storefront under the original key money agreement her parents entered into some 80 years ago. In this system, a holdover from the British Mandate, a renter makes a down payment and then pays a nominal monthly fee to possess the rights to the keys to a property, but doesn’t own it outright. These rights are passed down for up to three generations.
She readily admitted that Dalia’s Hats could never continue if she had to rent the space at current prices and that her children aren’t interested in maintaining the business. She herself has no plans to close the operation soon. When she does, the rights to the space will revert to the current owner of the building, who she thinks “lives abroad.”
Of the seven to eight hat stores that used to be in the neighborhood, Varman’s is the last. But, it turns out, it’s not the only one. Just down the street, another hat store opened up about a year ago, “but they only sell brand names,” said Varman. Rather than view this upstart as competition, she said they instead send business to each other, because “it’s better to be friends than enemies.”
Dalia’s Hats is located at 45 Nahalat Binyamin Street, Tel Aviv. Telephone: 03-560-8715. Hours: 11-5 Sunday through Thursday, 11-3 Tuesday, but it’s best to call ahead to confirm.