What to Know
Looking for a Fine Panama Hat Store? Find it in a Most Unexpected Place -- Bisbee
from Arizona Highways November 2000
Text by Tom Fitzpatrick
Photograph by Kerrick James
Walking up the eerily quiet hill from Brewery Gulch in Bisbee, I took it slowly. The owners at the High Desert Inn had predicted a stroll through the business district would be nostalgic, a trip back to the 1960s. They missed by a full decade. This was more like the '50s.
Nobody I encountered looked like Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin. But I spotted dead ringers for Beat Generation heroes writer Jack Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg.
Halfway up the hill, I stared into the window of the Optimo Custom Panama Hatworks and spotted a man wearing a creamy-white Panama hat. He bustled back and forth behind a 12-foot-long glass case with a dark wooden frame. Stacked neatly inside the case lay dozens of Panama hats.
The only man I have ever known with the brass to wear a Panama hat under roof was Tennessee Williams, and he died back in 1983. That was before we all realized that A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie had been enough to earn him enduring fame in the American theater.
The man behind the counter stood approximately the same height as Tennessee. He also wore the same style beard that Tennessee sometimes adopted. So I moved inside to get a better look and reassure myself I was not seeing an apparition.
The man grinned delightedly as I approached.
"I'm Grant Sergot," he said, extending a right hand. "Welcome to the finest Panama hat store in the West."
He reached below the counter to pull out a hat and held it in both hands with great care. "The material in this particular hat is so fine it has the consistency of silk," he said. "The workmanship is exquiste, so intricate it took 9 months to weave down in Montecristi, Ecuador. I'd sell it to you for $4,500. If you go to New York or San Francisco to find its equal, you'll see I'm offering an incredible bargain."
Sergot extended the hat for me to try on. I held my hands up defensively. I didn't dare risk a move that could bring me close to financial disaster. Sensing my distress, Sergot assured me that he had many hats in the store priced at under a hundred dollars.
He stood there fondling the creases on each side of the crown of what had to be the jewel of his collection. "Who does it remind you of?" Sergot asked.
"Humphrey Bogart? Gary Cooper? OrsonWelles? Harry Truman? Winston Churchill? Yes," he continued, "I'm talking of days gone by. A gentleman absolutely would not allow himself to be seen strolling along the boulevard with his head uncovered.
"Recently, Tom Selleck, the actor, came into my store. He and Faye Dunaway were making a film in the area for television. Selleck bought two Panama hats, one of them had the high crown with side indents that I call 'The Tom Mix.' The next day, Miss Dunaway came in to buy one, too. Need I tell you how great she looked in a Panama hat?"
Sergot remained indefatigably enthusiastic about his Panama hat collection. "After I shape a hat to fit your personality," he said, "you'll walk out of here with your head held high and your shoulders squared. You'll have an unmistakable sense of elan and panache. I've seen it happen hundreds of times to people who buy my hats."
Sergot arrived here as a footloose 20-year-old from Michigan journeying to see the whole country. That was nearly 30 years ago. He had become enamored with Panama Hats during a stopover in Santa Fe.
"I spent a day looking through a fine Panama hat store there, and promised myself that when I settled down someplace I would have the finest Panama hat store in the world. When I reached Bisbee, it took me about 5 minutes to realize I'd found a new home. Bisbee had everything I wanted out of life," he said. "It had colorful inhabitants. The place is filled with writers, artists and free spirits. The weather is great, too."
Sergot walked me to the front door. He raised his Panama hat in salute. "Sure, you can consider this as a hat from the '30s," he admitted, "but they're coming back strong. Figure it this way: Wearing a Panama hat is like listening to Mozart, after realizing you've heard too much Merle Haggard."