Roberta Glennon has been self-employed since finishing high school and giving people immersive hat shopping experiences for 30 years.
What started as making hats for herself and friends as a hobby would turn into the matchless Roberta’s Hats offering funky and zany chapeaux from around the world. Glennon and her husband Brian made the move away from their Vancouver home in 1992, seeking out business spaces around Victoria in anticipation of the Commonwealth Games happening there two years later.
“When you start up a business, you never know what direction it’s going to take,” Glennon said.
Settling in at 1318 Government St., she couldn’t have picked a better and more successful location.
Roberta’s reached its 30-year milestone in April, until which point it’s seen the changing of many businesses around it. Glennon pointed to a former Gap and Halloween store across the street, saying the toy vendor next door and adjacent souvenir shop are the only other spots that remain unchanged. For three decades, Roberta’s has stayed timeless.
“We’re lucky to have a nice, capable boss,” said sales associate Michelle Nesbitt.
“Even last summer without the cruise ships, we were really busy.”
Due to the nature of the business, Glennon faces minimal competition downtown and said a city the size of Victoria offers little room for more than one hat store anyway. So, what’s the secret to running a successful hat shop? According to her, it’s about showing up.
“Time management has to be one of your tools in your toolbox,” she said on running a small business.
She emphasized the need to keep up with trends, which her staff has a knack for. Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, bucket, cowboy and flat-brimmed hats are currently hot sellers among shoppers.
“Now they want to get out and do things, try things on and talk to people.”
Knowing how to lay out the store is equally vital and comes naturally from Glennon’s past experience in retail merchandising.
“You’ve got to give people room to move around. You have to give them an escape route if they want to leave.”
The building, formerly owned by a vintage clothing store and home furniture business, has had its original brick walls exposed and its concrete floor replaced with Mexican tiles, which only account for part of the decor.
Roberta’s shies away from shelves, racks, slat walls and fluorescent lights and favours a more eclectic and shabby-chic look, with antique furniture and fabric ceiling. Wooden ironing boards, antique hat blocks and the shop’s “famous” fish tank lie to the right of the checkout.
Visitors to Roberta’s can find Panama hats from Ecuador, Basque berets from France, Italian-made caps, Bailey of Hollywood hats from Adamstown, Pa., and many brands supplied from within Canada, including Lillie and Cohoe in Nelson, B.C.
“There’s lots of online platforms for ordering now too for businesses, where you just log in, they assign you a password and you’re able to buy things from all over the place,” Glennon explained.
She said it’s important to grab stock while you can, adding they’ve had to accommodate their growing men’s hat selection especially.
Roberta’s even sells hats for children and fascinators for people attending weddings, but it’s the classics that Glennon likes most: Fedoras, fascinators and top hats of the steampunk era.
“Music festivals are going to be back – hats are huge for music festivals, especially cowboy hats and fedoras and wide-brimmed hats.”
With no children to pass Roberta’s on to, Glennon, 58, says she’ll likely keep running the business for the fun it brings her. She’s grateful for the six-person “all-girl show” staff she has on hand in the meantime.
“It’s just nice that here is kind of a good news story - a women-operated small business that’s still going strong for 30 years.”
As Glennon put it, who knows what the next few years will bring for Victoria’s most prominent hat store?
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