Sunday, February 8, 2009

Survivor on 'the Main'

This story appears in today's Montreal Gazette,'s good to see that some business's have survived the test of time,....this one & perhaps Schwartz's & the Montreal Pool Room ,  are probably only a handful of longtime business resident's of the 'Main'

Survivor on the Main



Barry Shinder, owner of Maple Leaf Hat and Cap Manufacturing, hunches over the same sewing machine his father did 79 years ago when the Mile End company was founded.

Photograph by: Dave Sidaway, The Gazette

“Nothing made in China here!” declares Barry Shinder as he stitches the crown of a wool flat cap.

He’s hunched over the heavy black Singer sewing machine that his father, Samuel Shinder, used when he started Maple Leaf Hat and Cap Manufacturing Company 79 years ago.

“My father used to sit right here. He’d turn around and say, ‘go back to school, not into the shmata business.’ But school wasn’t for me.” Shinder, an energetic man of 62, wears a St.Viateur Bagel T-shirt, track pants and running shoes that permit him to dash around his one-room factory like an athlete.

“I’ve been on St. Lawrence all my life,” Shinder says. “Me and my brothers used to lie on the sewing tables as babies.”

Shinder’s father moved Maple Leaf from its original location (on St. Laurent Blvd. near Prince Arthur) to St. Laurent north of St.Viateur in 1953, when Barry was 6 years old. He still lives above the cap factory, in the Mile End apartment where he grew up. At the front of the workshop, flat caps, also known as Ivy League or newsboy caps, puffier Dutch caps and deerstalkers spill out of cubbyholes.

Tables of sewing machines stretch down the middle of the narrow room and old nails poke up from worn-out floorboards. At the far end of the room, dozens of short wood domes, the blocks for shaping caps, fill the shelves.

Maple Leaf produced about 11,000 caps in 2008. Ninety per cent of Shinder’s business is with a manufacturer who contracts out cap making to him, bringing Shinder the cut pieces to assemble. The manufacturer then distributes the caps to high-end stores across Quebec and Ontario, where they retail for between $45 and $65. This way, Shinder isn't’t stuck with a large inventory. His wholesale price per cap ranges from approximately $13 to $16, depending on the quantity of the order. He also has a small inventory of his own caps that he sells on site for $20 each. Shinder charges the same price for a made-to-measure cap.

Customers like Kune Wai-Song are happy to pay it. He recently made a special trip across town to purchase a second Maple Leaf cap.

“I don’t want to buy ‘made in China’!” says Kune Wai-Song, originally from China himself. “I make my money here, so why should I spend it on the other side?”

Shinder has three employees who’ve been with him for over 15 years. They work full-time from May through November, sewing fall and winter caps at about $12 an hour. Shinder works with them, sometimes clocking 60 to 70 hours during the production season. Once the caps are delivered, business slows down and Shinder mans the factory alone. But this week, he had company.

“My Dad asked me to come in,” says Howard Shinder, 27. “He doesn’t want to pay other workers when he has family ‘sitting home playing video games,’ ” he says, quoting his father.

Actually, even if Howard were at work, he would be playing games. For the past two years the Concordia Communications grad has worked as a computer game tester. His most recent six-month contract at Babel Media ended in December. Now he’s on call for testing, but in January he only worked a handful of days. His father wants him to learn the ropes at the cap factory so he’ll have something to fall back on.

Howard, who describes himself as “more creative than active,” dreams of getting a job at Ubisoft, the gaming giant based in the Peck Building, located less than a block away from Maple Leaf and once home to much of the area’s garment industry. Computer gaming is now the neighbourhood growth industry. Ubisoft employs about 1,400 people.

“I apply there once a month,” Howard says. He’s tested some of Ubisoft’s games, but so far, a steady job there has eluded him. He presses three green-gold skullcaps onto wood domes and pops them into what looks like a giant a hotdog steamer. In addition to wool caps, every year Maple Leaf produces about 1,000 skullcaps for weddings and bar mitzvahs, with the name and date of the event printed on the lining.

Barry Shinder says yarmulkes used to be bigger business for Maple Leaf, but now there’s competition. People can even order them off the Internet. By the time Howard has smoothed three more yarmulkes onto the blocks, the first ones were ready to come out of the boiler, neatly steamed into shape. Blocking, he says, is one of the few basic things he knows how to do here. Since he moved out five years ago, he’s only set foot in the factory to visit his father. He’s never touched a sewing machine. But that’s about to change.

“Right now I don’t have other prospects,” Howard says. “I could teach someone to sew in five minutes,” Barry maintains. “It’s all in the pedal.”

He sits his son at a Juki sewing machine and encourages Howard to practise on remnants. Howard covers scraps of material with rows of stitching. Then he starts sewing bits of material together, making rough collages in the shape of faces.

Meanwhile, Barry Shinder hops from one sewing machine to another to do different operations on the flat cap, muttering things like, “What happened to my chalk? I get famisched, you know, mixed up – all the up and down, I’m Moisheh kapoyer (a person who does everything backward), all over the place.”

Then he sits down and his needle stabs the fabric making precise, even stitches.

“When I make a hat, I look at it and say, 'Would I buy that hat in a store?'” he says. “I make sure it comes out the way I like it. No defect. See, that got folded over there, I don’t like it.” He rips out a seam and resews it. “People see a hat, they think there’s no work to it. What is it to make a hat? You could have 32 different operations. There are no straight seams on a hat. Everything is on curves and angles.”

Family ateliers like Maple Leaf used to exist all along St. Laurent Boulevard and Park Avenue. They were the heart of the Montreal garment industry in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Then, successful family companies began moving out of the city centre to bigger factories in the Chabanel district. More recently, much of the industry has moved out of the city – and the country – completely, outsourcing its manufacturing off-shore.

Shinder remembers when St. Laurent Blvd. was lined with haberdasheries and each one stocked a couple dozen caps from his father’s factory.

“All the kids wore caps. That was part of their dress,” he recalls.

“Now, sometimes you go in 10 stores and you don’t see caps. “I have to go on the road and hit a couple stores to see if they’re interested in carrying my hats. But I’m no salesman. And I hate rejection.”

Shinder doesn’t like to divulge the stores where his caps are sold because the client he depends on for volume is the one who deals with retailers. However, if you’ve bought a made-in-Canada cap at a high-end store in Montreal, you could be wearing a Maple Leaf Cap without even knowing it. Now, with the flood of cheap imports from China, it’s only higher-end stores that can afford to stock Canadian-made caps.

“People want Canadian-made, but they’re going to complain about prices. At L’Equipeur they sell a cap for $13, made in China. I can’t compete,” Shinder says.

Since quotas on imports were lifted, Shinder says he probably produces 1,000 fewer caps every year.

“Every year it gets tougher. At one point, I wanted my son to build it up. But why ruin his life? He’s gonna work 60 to 70 hours a week in here? Is there a future in this? I can’t see it. I’m a dying breed.” This winter, Shinder adds, it’s particularly dead. “The phone doesn’t ring.”

“Dad, this machine is not running.”

“Let’s see.” Barry darts over, checks the bobbin and adjusts the tension of the thread, sewing a bit and listening for a tic or snap in the machine that would signal the thread breaking. “Okay, now you’re all set.”

After a few hours of sewing scraps, Howard graduates to cap pieces. He says whenever he sees a cap, he thinks of his father.

“I watch TV and see the hat styles going on. I try to encourage him to make new stuff.” Barry is making something new: his first fedora. It’s soft and flexible, a sample slouch hat for a client. If all goes well, maybe next season he’ll make more of them, along with his trademark classic caps. His father was still sewing caps when he was 84 years old.

“I like to do it,” Barry Shinder says. “It’s what I do. I don’t know how to do anything else. I’ve been doing it my whole life.”

As for his future, Howard sees himself working in technology, eventually in a higher capacity than game testing. But he hopes to learn enough about making caps to help his dad out.

“Sewing’s not as bad as I thought,” he says, after his stint in the shop. “I feel like I actually accomplished something. I constructed something. When I work at Babel, all I touch is the computer.”

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