A downtown merchant sheds his business, not his mission. 

Of Hats and Grace

The Rev. David Frazier drives bargains like he tells dreams: first things first.

It's how he relates to everybody. No sooner had he said he was closing his shop, GiGi Hats on East Grace Street, than the thrifty sorts who show up early at backyard sales started calling, pressing for deals. They make offers and plead for the bones of the place, its displays, vanities, hat stands, even the sea-foam-green signs outside that stick to the building. Frazier's reply is always the same: He's not selling the fixtures until the merchandise is gone — all $60,000 worth.

That could take a while. Yellowed boxes of wigs, veils and lusterless costume jewelry abound. Here, a half-price sale has its limits. Convincing a Southerner to buy a $260 mink fur hat in July, he explains, is harder than rapping to scripture. Frazier, by the way, has done both. As a boutique owner and Baptist preacher, he knows all about the power of persuasion.

Frazier's lease on the 50-year-old shop ran out last month when he decided not to renew it. Business had fallen off to a trickle. Then, he says, it stopped. "I really started climbing the walls," he says.

It wasn't always this way.

The ability to spruce up what is plain, ugly even, is a quality much cited by those who know Frazier. For 16 years he managed the Rite Aid at 5th and East Broad streets. Before that, he worked at the People's drug store and A&P grocery. Frazier bought the hat shop nearly six years ago after its original owner, Helene Burke Kuhn, died.

He had witnessed the best and worst of downtown's retail hubs, and he had his doubts. "I thought, 'I don't need no hat business,'" he says. When the shop reported $100,000 in business in 1987, he changed his mind: "That's a lot of money for a little store."

But Frazier, 53, has never seen those riches. There are a million reasons why. And in time, none of them seemed to matter much.

Today, two electric fans duel the heat. The store is empty. Frazier sits in a Herman Miller chair — oblivious to its current value — that came with the store, and he reads from what looks like a tattered phone book. It is a scripture dictionary. Frazier is on the T's: tribulation; tribute; tried; trodden; troubled; true; trust.

GiGi Hats, he says, is not about the hats. If it were, the little shop would have closed years ago. To be sure, a sale here and there is welcome relief. What people really leave the store with isn't something to wear to church or the Easter Parade. Through the years, Frazier says, the city's homeless have been some of his best customers.

"I feed people out the back," he says, giving them whatever breakfast or lunch he can offer. And during business hours, it's not shoppers who keep him busy. Frazier is pastor of Mount Sinai Baptist Church in Church Hill. It is a 24-hour job.

The phone rings. Frazier listens and nods as a man tells him his troubles. Then Frazier explains to the man: "You got to vent, you got to talk. Welcome to the real world. You're maturing into a man."

He hangs up. Inspiration is everywhere, he says, when you know where to look. A poem titled "I Believe in You" is taped inside the display window. Plenty of people read it, says Frazier. Some have copied it down. A couple comes into the shop to ask about the plastic feather-coated birds in the window. "We've always admired them," the woman says. They say they'd like to buy them.

Frazier's father had raised pigeons. After he died. Frazier started to collect fake ones that from time to time he places on his grave. The ones in the window, he says he'll probably part with. But not now. He tells the couple to come back next week.

Each day Frazier checks his memory against reality. Sometimes it is depressing, he says. "We've gotten too commercialized. We've lost focus of what makes life complete." Helping others, showing off their potential — that's what Frazier wants to be remembered for, he says. Not hats. "This store is more than a store. It's a mission. That's the only thing I'm going to regret about leaving."

A red-haired woman enters the shop. She says she's from Bumpass, Va. She takes her time looking around. It's her first, and most likely her only, visit. She holds a mirror with one hand and fingers the brim of a red hat with the other, turning her head side to side, admiring.

"They call me the hat lady in church. I've started to reintroduce them," she says. "I wish I had known you were here." The woman decides on a white mesh hat and a black one with shiny gold bow. Total price after discount: $162.73. It's more business than Frazier had once done in a month. But that's not what matters to Frazier.

In minutes he finds that thing in his voice — the right words, the cadence — that lets you know the passion is back. Suddenly the old days return, the forgotten customs, the crowded streets, the chorus of voices, the shoppers outside huddled close to keep warm, touching off the spirit of Christmas downtown. He'll miss that too, he says. It's part of him. But for now, he's got 300 veils, 80 pairs of gloves, 10 cases of feathers and 12 yards of tulle to sell. And a congregation to

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