There are a few things you just have to do when you visit Texas. You have to eat barbecue. You have to not correct people when they say "y'all". You have to drink the agave-based spirit mezcal. You have to buy a cowboy hat. And when it comes to the latter, you have to do it at Paris Hatters in San Antonio, the Lone Star State's oldest hat shop.
The first thing I notice upon entering this small, cramped 102-year-old store is not the hats themselves - although the walls are covered in felt Stetsons, straw fedoras, panamas, top hats, woollen flat caps and more. It's the photographs taking up any spare patch of wall. These are of the famous visitors Paris Hatters has welcomed since opening in 1917. Here, Pope John Paul II pulls a Paris Hatters Stetson onto his head; over there, Bob Dylan poses in a custom number. Pavarotti, Johnny Cash, Paul McCartney, BB King, it goes on.
But while there are few among us who can resist the lure of celebrity, this isn't what makes Paris Hatters so special. Neither is it the fact that it custom fits and shapes the hats it sells. No, what makes it extraordinary and helps it sell more than 9000 hats a year, is that it has been owned and operated by the same family for over a century.
Currently at the Paris Hatters helm is Alexandra Sledge, an animated, dark-haired woman who runs the business with her father Abe Cortez – who took over from his father, and his father before him. "Hat shaping is a dying art," she says in a Texan drawl as she whips hats off the walls, trying to find one that's just right for me. "It's really niche so it's not easy to find staff, plus there's the rise in online shopping. But we've been fortunate, because you're not going to get the brim or the crown shape exactly as you want it unless you come in to get fitted."
A hat, says Sledge, needs to be chosen according to the wearer's height, shoulder width and weight, and also their personality. "Hats are very personal, they need to really speak to who you are."
So which hat is me, I wonder, me with my deceptively large head and gangly body? Am I like the gent from Nevada who, Sledge tells me, flew his jet to San Antonio just to buy a $US5500 beaver fur hat with a diamanté buckle? Sadly not – the price, obviously, but also a brim that's too slim for me. Am I this chocolate-coloured Stetson that looks like something out of an old western? Nope, the crown is too tall and stretches my already long face. But then Sledge shows me a fabulous wide-brimmed white straw hat, somewhere between a panama and a sombrero, and I know we've found The One. Its black band essentially divides the hat in two and so doesn't make me look too tall, says Sledge, plus it speaks to me of summer days lazing by the ocean and long lunches in sun-splashed fields. Yes please.
Without taking any measurements, Sledge expertly plucks my size off the shelf. I pay at the old-timey hand-cranked cash register and walk out into the sunshine, delighted with my genuine Texan cowboy hat. It's not until I'm in the car 40 minutes later, halfway to Austin, that I notice the inside label. "Handcrafted in Guatemala" it reads, where I'll be in just three days' time, and where I could surely buy the exact same hat for half the price. I'm gutted. But only for the moment it takes me to realise it was never about the hat anyway. It was about doing one of those things you just have to do while you're in Texas.
Nina Karnikowski travelled as a guest of Travel Texas.
Air New Zealand flies to Houston up to five times a week via Auckland from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Coolangatta, Adelaide and the Sunshine Coast. See airnewzealand.com.au