If the late Ernest DelMonico could see his grandson, also named Ernest, clicking away today at the computer in the family's hat store, he would exclaim, "What's a Web site? What's this Internet?"
But it's the Internet that has saved the store, DelMonico Hatter, which has been operating at several locations in New Haven since 1908. The original Ernest founded it.
"The Internet now is more than 60 percent of our business," said DelMonico. "And I think that's going to rise to 80 percent."
DelMonico knows the hat business (how could he not?) but he also knows computers. He never made a full-time career in hats, preferring instead to go into computer software.
He was holding down the old fort in that cast iron building at 47 Elm St. this past week because store manager David Jensen was recuperating from foot surgery and store clerk Tom Heffernan was on vacation.
I have walked past that store hundreds of times but I very rarely go inside because I am not a hat guy, not that kind of hat. I favor a Yankee Doodle Coffee Shop beanie during the winter and a New York Yankees baseball cap in warmer weather.
But DelMonico, who still owns the store even though he doesn't work there full time, can rely on a national and international community of hat-wearers.
No matter how many times the trend-watchers say hats are "going out of style," that community perseveres.
DelMonico recently bought Neil Steinbergs book, "Hatless Jack: The President, the Fedora and the History of an American Style." Steinberg said President Kennedy was unfairly blamed for wiping out the hat industry when he didn't wear a hat during his inauguration speech in 1961.
DelMonico agrees Kennedy is blameless. "I don't buy the theory that one person, one day was the demise of the whole industry."
Every weekend the hat people of the world are on the Internet, visiting the DelMonico Web site. And often enough, they're placing orders on-line.
"Our busiest day is Monday," DelMonico said. "We're processing all the orders from Saturday and Sunday."
He added, "A snowstorm used to be devastating for us; we'd have to close the store. Now, we love snowstorms. People stay home and shop! We see the orders after the storms."
DelMonico, who is 65 and lives in New York City, emphasized that it was his father, Joseph DelMonico, who kept the store going for about 75 years. He died in 2001 at age 90 but worked almost until his death.
"After he died, I decided I had to do something with the business," DelMonico said. "We got tremendous encouragement from people to keep going.
"I knew we had to grow it," he said.
Enter the Internet. The DelMonico Web site began operating in December 2002. DelMonico said business has improved since that time.
"People see us on the Internet and they come in on a Saturday," he said. "They drive down from Albany or Providence or Massachusetts. There is no store like this in New England."
Marcus Mills, a part-time salesman at the store, said, "We ship all over the world: Japan, England, Toronto, Newfoundland ..."
DelMonico said a popular item these days is a line of Borsalino hats, made in Italy. Some of them can be bought for $165 but a connoisseur could spend up to $450.
DelMonico noted you can buy plenty of other (non-Italian) hats in the range of $37.
The store still customizes some hats, because Ralph Fisco, who has been there since he was a boy, maintains a small space at the back where he continues to do those special orders.
Fisco is there just one or two days per week, but when members of the Stony Creek Drum Corps need new plumes on their hats, he's the man.
Now, as DelMonico Hatter approaches its 100th anniversary, one has to wonder about its future. DelMonico said his kids don't want to go into the hat business.
"We'll do something over the next few years," he said. "I don't know what. It'll be taken over or sold."
But he said DelMonico Hatter should be more than just a Web site.
"I think our success is because we have a physical store," he said, gesturing at the rows of fedoras, Stetsons, berets and Panama straws.