This weekend, I came across a wonderful hat and clothing store in Asbury Park, New Jersey, called Mr. Fashion. Its slogan is classic: “For The Man Who Cares”. I noticed it on Thursday night, next to a bar and restaurant called The Brickwall; its hats and shoes sitting in the display window were classy and old-fashioned. I have searched far and wide for fedoras, and so returned the next day.
I grew up about 15 minutes from Asbury Park, and the seaside town still attracts me like a magnet. It was the home of Springsteen and the E Street Band and a legendary music scene in the 1970s; before that, from the late 19th century until the 1940s, it was one of the most popular shore destinations for people from the whole East Coast.
Long rundown, but redeveloping in fits, Asbury is still the most unique and historic town in the area. Unlike other nearby beach towns, it hasn’t yet been wholly overwhelmed by tasteless, anonymous luxury condos. A few have gone up; others, as has happened many times in the past, just stopped mid-construction. Asbury has done a fair job of preserving its old buildings and tradition, although they’re constantly under threat. The way society has changed since World War II – from urban to suburban – has not been kind to Asbury.
Mr. Fashion is one of the few old stayers of Cookman Avenue, once the throbbing artery of downtown Asbury Park. On each side of it are empty storefronts, the kind of shop – a display window that juts out, an entrance passing through the middle – that I have seen on many old Main streets. The architecture on Cookman Avenue, and elsewhere in Asbury, is really stunning.
The old Steinbach building across from Mr. Fashion reminds me of the Flatiron building in New York. (Steinbach had been a fixture in Asbury Park since the late 1800s, and this building was its new flagship store, built at the turn of the century, billed as “the world’s largest resort department store.” This building initially contained five floors – a basement and four floors – and by the 1930s, a fifth floor and clock tower were added.)
Other structures on the block are fine art deco examples, such as the seemingly vacant office building at 50 Cookman Avenue. The old Asbury Park Press headquarters across the street from the Steinbach building is also remarkable.
The Mr. Fashion entrance is also notable: notice how the awning says Mr. Fashion’s, and the 1960s-era sign goes with Mr. Fashion. Once inside, I spoke to the proprietor, Mark Gray, for about twenty minutes. We talked hats and Asbury. The hat industry, he told me, was devastated after John F. Kennedy did not wear a hat at his inauguration – a first. Gray told me that his father sold hats and had a fine collection; he never remembers him leaving the house without one on. “Then, you weren’t a man unless you wore a hat,” Gray said. In recent years, the hat industry has revived in part, Gray said.
Mr. Fashion is a legendary place in Asbury and synonymous with Cookman Avenue. Gray is its second owner in the shop’s 40-year history: he bought it two years ago from Carl Williams, the former Asbury Park mayor who owned the store all that time. Gray pointed to a distinguished black-and-white photo of Williams, presumably taken in his office when he was the mayor, on a wall to the right of the register.
Gray grew up in Neptune, one town over from Asbury, but recalled for me the great attractions the city once had. It was the lifeblood of Monmouth County. He shared those memories with a bittersweet tone. He still keeps the store open late on Friday nights, an old Asbury tradition (also Wednesdays then, too), before malls ruined downtown shopping areas like this one.
In the end, I ended up buying a sharp white fedora with a feather on the side. Gray kindly volunteered a discount.