Sacred Feather, longtime hat shop on State Street, to close next month

June 9, 2018

Wasie Amiri is closing his State Street hat shop.

The American dream he has been living since coming to Madison from Afghanistan in 1985 remains fully intact.

Amiri, 51, will no longer toil with fedoras, derbies and other head wear, make custom belts, sell locally made handbags and purses and operate one of the oldest retail establishments in Downtown Madison. But once his Sacred Feather hat shop closes sometime after Maxwell Street Days in mid-July, Amiri will continue his unlikely entrepreneurial journey as the owner of a Sun Prairie strip mall, where he will become a landlord of tenants that include a Pizza Hut, Dollar General, Cost Cutters and a dance studio.

A hat shop is not in Amiri’s plans, which will bring to an end a 48-year-old business that over the years has become one of the most recognizable stores on one of the state’s most walkable streets.

“I’ve worked very, very, very hard to get here,” Amiri said of his career. “I just can’t say enough about what this country has done for me, but again, I worked very hard from an early age until now, and now I want to semi-retire. I just hope my next project will make me a little bit more money so I can enjoy my life.”

Amiri is the only employee of Sacred Feather, 417 State St., a decision that helped make the business more profitable and likely helped it remain part of the State Street retail landscape longer than most. But that commitment has meant 70-hour workweeks for Amiri and little time for much else outside of the business, which is open seven days a week.

He keeps a handwritten “Back in five min” sign under the front counter when he needs a bathroom break or runs an errand. On warm days, he at times can be seen sitting on a bench in front of his store, sometimes visiting with one of his tenants, who live in one of nine one-room apartments above the store.

“I think I’m going to miss it after all of these years,” said Brian McGinnis, 51, who has lived in the building since 1987 and last week wore a faded, black Greek fisherman’s hat he purchased from Amiri about five years ago. “It’s been here a long time.”

Unlike most businesses on State Street, Sacred Feather is located in a Victorian-era house — made of brick and with a sandstone foundation — set back from the street with a set of five concrete steps and lined with a pair of wrought-iron railings, each decorated with an iron feather. Constructed in 1884, the building has housed only two other businesses, a tailor shop and, for nearly 25 years, Ethel Wood’s Intimate Apparel.

Sacred Feather was founded in 1975 as a partnership between Paul Henry and Tony Badame. The two men started with a push cart, but a short time later, in October 1975, moved into a basement location at 543 State St. where they sold handmade leather goods, jewelry, pottery, artwork and a few hats. Henry left the business in 1980, and that year Badame moved the business into its existing location, which for many years was next door to Yellow Jersey, State Street’s last full-service bike shop, which moved from State Street to the Columbia County village of Arlington in 2013.

The closing of Sacred Feather is a blow to State Street, which has seen other longtime businesses depart in recent years. They have included Fanny Garver Gallery, Steep & Brew, Mary’s Tailoring and College Barber Shop, a fixture since the 1920s in the 600 block of State. Sacred Feather is believed to be one of only a few designer hat shops in the state, and its absence will leave a void for those looking for something special without having to order it online.

“I’m disturbed to hear it. It’s an incredibly unique shop,” said Sean Scannell, owner of The Soap Opera, another longtime State Street business.

“The whole nature of retail has changed so much, but there are still plenty of retail stores that are doing fine. They just have to have the right focus. Retailers who are doing it right are still being successful.”

From Afghanistan

to Madison

Amiri never envisioned his path to success. He was a teenager in Afghanistan in the 1980s when his country was in the midst of a war with the Soviet Union, which had invaded in 1979 in an attempt to subdue the Afghan civil war. About 2 million Afghan civilians were killed during the Soviet’s 10-year occupation, and millions more fled the country as refugees.

Amiri came to Madison with his brother, Nazar Amiri, because their sister had a family here. Wasie Amiri ultimately graduated from Madison West High School and soon after began working in jobs on State Street. His longest gig went 22 years at the now-closed Gino’s Restaurant, where he said he worked 60 to 70 hours a week and eventually became a manager. It was during that time at Gino’s that Amiri got to know Badame, a longtime customer. So when Badame announced in 2012 he was selling his hat shop, Amiri, who became a U.S. citizen in 1990, bought the business and the building.

Amiri started with four part-time employees. But less than a year in, he realized that to make a go of it, he would need to do it on his own.

“I had no other choice. I (could) not afford to hire people,” Amiri said. “It’s not easy.”

His typical morning routine for the past five years has been a workout at a gym followed by a trip to his 1,400-square-foot shop, where on some nights he may not leave until after 7 p.m. In between customers, Amiri makes custom leather belts. His hat lineup includes some of the biggest names from around the world such as Stetson, Scala, Dobbs, Bailey, Wigens and Biltmore. His shop has a few blaze orange stocking caps, party hats, hunting caps from Stormy Kromer and sun hats that are popular around Kentucky Derby time. But like many other retailers, Amiri is dealing with changing buying habits by his customers.

“Business has been slowly declining,” said Amiri, who was wearing a lightweight straw country gentleman’s hat. “People come, they spend a lot of time looking, take pictures and go buy online. It’s very hard to compete with big companies like Amazon. It’s tough.”

Amiri has been married to his wife, Roya, since 1997. They have two children, Deeba, 19, who just completed her freshman year at UW-Madison, and Yousef, 18, who just graduated from Verona Area High School and will attend Madison Area Technical College in the fall. Roya is a manager at CUNA Mutual.

Amiri said a buyer approached him in December, asking to buy his State Street building, and they closed on April 27. It is unclear what tenant will replace his hat shop. For Amiri, his focus will turn to becoming a landlord of the Sundale Plaza, located in the 900 block of Windsor Street in Sun Prairie. The 30,000-square-foot retail center had been on the market for $1.9 million. A hat shop will not be part of the mix.

“I worked for the money for the past 33 years, but hopefully now the money can start working for me,” Amiri said. “This is a great American dream story.”