• June 2011

Lessons Learned From The Mad Hatter Who Founded Hats in the Belfry

Hats are funny. They are also serious fashion statements. That’s what Courtney Garton knew when he, and his then-wife Margie Bryce, founded Hats in the Belfry in 1978.

Although the couple sold the business six years ago, they made a good living and learned a lot about what it means to own and grow a small business.

Today, their legacy is intact. The company remains a trusted source for premium-quality hats and caps on the streets of Philadelphia, Baltimore’s Harbor Place and Fells Point, Annapolis, and now National Harbor.

We caught up with Garton at his riverfront home in Annapolis to learn more about his life as an entrepreneur. — Hope Katz Gibbs, publisher, Be Inkandescent Magazine

Be Inkandescent: You started your career as a schoolteacher. What made you want to get into the hat business in 1978?

Courtney Garton: I wish I could take credit for that wise decision, but I can’t. My then-wife, Margie Bryce, was also a schoolteacher, and she was the one with the idea of opening a retail business. I always said that Margie was the brains of our company, and I was the one who carried the hat boxes around. Actually, it was a perfect fit: Margie was good with the strategy and numbers part of the business; I was good with inventory and customers.

In January 1978, we were on a vacation in Key West, Florida. It was warm, and people were friendly. We noticed that the merchants seemed to be in a good mood. The atmosphere was festive. Margie and I liked what we saw, and wanted to duplicate that atmosphere back home in Annapolis. So, when we returned from Key West, we signed a two-year lease on a retail space in touristy, downtown Annapolis.

The problem was that we had no idea what we wanted to sell! We’d just committed to two years of rent, and we had no product in mind! So we went window shopping in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. First, Margie saw a sweater in a shop window and asked, “Why don’t we sell sweaters?” I said no. Then she saw a man’s dress shirt in another window and asked, “Why don’t we sell dress shirts?” And I said no. Finally (third time’s the charm) she saw a man’s cap in a window and asked, “Why don’t we sell hats?”

And it was like a light bulb going off in my head. I jumped up and down and said, “YES! That’s it!” I really did, in that epiphany moment, visualize our hat shop exactly the way it turned out: Every shelf loaded with every conceivable kind of hat, for both men and women, and crazy hats, too. Customers happily trying the hats on, changing personalities before their own eyes, laughing, singing along with the store’s background music (Jimmy Buffett, of course) — and the cash register jingling. That was what was going on in my head when Margie suggested hats.

Two days later, we were in New York buying hats. And we opened our first Hats in the Belfry six weeks later.

People often ask me how we got the cutesy name, Hats in the Belfry. Again, I wish it was my idea, but again, it was Margie’s. As a little girl, whenever Margie did something crazy, something really “nutso,” her mom would scold her by saying, “What’s wrong with you? You got bats in your belfry?”

So, when Margie and I announced that we were both going to give up our good-paying teaching jobs, and go into the totally unreliable hat business, everyone thought we had completely lost our minds. Nobody in 1978 wore hats! We were crazy, nutso. And so Margie, remembering her Mom’s admonishment, thought it appropriate that we name our new shop, Hats in the Belfry. Obviously, that was a good move.

So it really wasn’t that we thought about hats long and hard before we opened a store. It was pretty much an impulsive decision. Kinda like hats are.

Be Inkandescent: What was the best part about owning Hats in the Belfry?

Courtney Garton: I liked the freedom of calling my own shots in life. Of living on the edge, knowing that your mistakes would cost you, and hoping that your wise decisions would translate into success. And, of course, I had access to all those great hats.

Be Inkandescent: What was the most challenging thing?

Courtney Garton: For me, it was the leadership requirement. I’m not a natural, good leader; I’m a good follower. Owning one shop when there was only Margie and I and one part-time employee was easy — not much leadership required there. But then, as we expanded into three stores, with a warehouse, and 40 employees, things changed. Then, I wasn’t looked on for my hat-selling skills as much as for my delegation and leadership skills. I could sell hats. But being a fair boss of 40 people was totally different, and by far my biggest challenge.

Be Inkandescent: Did you get to meet some famous folks? If so, who? Do you have any good hat stories about them?

Courtney Garton: Oh yeah! Margie and I were on a book tour, of all things — for the book “In Love and in Business.” It was about married couples who were partners in business. We were invited to be on several TV shows.

We even got to ride in a limo with Debbie Fields, of Mrs. Fields Cookies. On one TV show, we were guests of Joan Lunden and Barbara Walters on “Good Morning America” — back in 1986. And Dr. Ruth, too! Dr. Ruth was so short, she needed a little foot-stool in front of her chair; otherwise her feet wouldn’t touch the ground.

Sex was always on the mind of Dr. Ruth. So the day that Margie and I were on her show, Dr. Ruth at some point looks up at me and asks, “So, Courtney, when you have sex with Margie, is there any certain kind of hat that you wear?” I was dumbfounded. Embarrassed. Totally at a loss for words. I sputtered some ahs and ahems, and finally blurted out something about wearing a unicorn hat. Dumb — just very dumb. I couldn’t think straight.

Be Inkandescent: What made you start franchising the business in 1984?

Courtney Garton: We had three shops, in very busy tourist areas. Tourists/customers would come in on a busy Saturday night, see all the business that we were doing, see how much “fun” it looked like we were having, and they wanted to go back to their cities and start a Hats in the Belfry on their own. But we had no mechanism for that. So we thought about franchising.

Be Inkandescent: Was that a difficult step?

Courtney Garton: It was. It was very hard to get franchisees to follow the plan, to do what they were supposed to. It goes back to that “leadership” thing again. Somebody once defined leadership as the ability to get other people to do what you want them to, and for them to feel good about it. I was a good retailer, but not a very good franchisor. Franchisors must be strong leaders.

Be Inkandescent: Once you realized that you didn’t want to be in the franchise biz, you pulled back on the reigns. Was that tough?

Courtney Garton: Absolutely. Our franchisees had paid a lot of money for their franchise. They failed to make it. For most of them, I felt really bad. A couple of them deserved to fail, and I had no hesitation in watching them do so. But it was still tough on Margie and me emotionally, and on our staff.

Be Inkandescent: Did you lose a lot in terns of revenue, PR, and good will?

Courtney Garton: We lost a lot of revenue. We had to completely rethink what we wanted to do. We decided on the “company store” model. But that meant letting go of some of our best employees, employees who had been hired to help us with franchising.

When we decided to abandon franchising, our revenues dropped dramatically, and we had to downsize our operations; we had to let people go. That hurt. But because of the way we abandoned franchising (as gently as we could), I don’t think we lost a lot of PR or good will. For the most part, the public didn’t know what was going on. Hats in the Belfry remained very popular, despite the failure of franchising.

Be Inkandescent:: Six years ago you sold the business. Was that a tough decision?

Courtney Garton: No. It was time; 32 years in the retail business is enough for me. I wanted to do something different in life.

Be Inkandescent:: Are you enjoying being retired?

Courtney Garton: It’s the best! I work part-time from home, I play a lot of tennis, I live on the Chesapeake Bay, I’m single, and in great shape, I’m connected with my kids and grandkids — how does life get any better than that?

In fact, I started a small business called MoreGoodClicks.com. It’s a “pay-per-click” management business. My clients have web sites that sell products. What I do is write online ads for my clients, so that when customers search on their product, my client’s ad will appear on Google’s and Yahoo’s and MSN’s first page.

When customers do a search, they will find my ad. When they click on the ad, they are then taken to my client’s website, where hopefully the customers will buy something. I manage my clients’ entire “paid ad” programs, from Google AdWords creations, to hands-on, daily updating of “keyword” bids and ads.

I’ve been doing this work since 1997, when I started HatsintheBelfry.com. That’s 14 years of experience. I don’t mean to brag, but very few people in the country have my level of experience, and my results are way better than the national average. In fact, I have been told this by every search engine professional who has seen my results, including a Google guru.

Most importantly, my clients are very happy because I bring them so much revenue for so little cost. I really love this work, and I’m very good at it (sorry for tooting my own horn, but in this case, it’s really true).

Be Inkandescent: What are you working on now?

Courtney Garton: I also do volunteer work for the local “Center of Help” — a wonderful, nonprofit organization that helps low income Latinos adjust to life in Annapolis, by providing lessons in English, help with medical issues, aid in finding employment, and all sorts of critical life services like that. And, I have been taking Spanish lessons from my daughter Adrienne for over two years now, so that I can better communicate with the Latino Annapolitans who need help.

I also play a lot of tennis. My goal is to win the “U.S. Open Tennis Championship for Men 100 Years Old and Older.” That will be in September, 2046, and I will then be 100 years and 2 months old. Should be perfect. I’m currently in a 35-year training program to achieve my goal. Recently, I was fortunate enough to have my picture taken with Andre Agassi (and Cal Ripken). As I shook hands with Andre, I told him what my tennis goal in life was. He looked at me like maybe I was one tennis ball short in the head, but wished me good luck — then smiled broadly and added that he thought it was a great goal. I knew he would think that.

Be Inkandescent: How many hats do you own?

Courtney Garton: About 20. But hats are like kids, so I try not to pick favorites. I do, however, especially like my cold-weather, fuzzy stocking cap with multiple rainbow braids down the back. Whenever I play tennis outside on a cold, blustery day and wear that hat, with all 15 of its multicolored braids flying all over the place in the wind, my opponent always accuses me of inciting distraction. Just sour grapes, I think, on his part, as he absorbs another tough loss.