In its 30th year, Proper Topper is more than a hat shop; it’s become a sorority of strength.
As she plans the store’s anniversary year, Anna Fuhrman, who founded the original in Union station, says she’s most looking forward to celebrating “the friendships that were sparked.”
After store closures, store openings and a current chemotherapy regime, Fuhrman is still propping and topping — no small feat in the turbulent world of COVID-19 retail.
“I have weathered the big changes in business after Sept. 11, the Great Recession, the dominance of Amazon. Still, nothing can really prepare you for a complete shutdown of your business.”
Fuhrman tells us she’s able to keep paying her 10 staff members during the city’s lockdown, but her house has turned into “a shipping center, and the majority of the shop’s inventory has moved into my living room.” Looking forward to Mother’s Day, she’s developed an online curation of “gift picks” which she curbside-delivers herself.
In a true nod to the times, Proper Topper even has its own hand sanitizer it calls “Proper Comfort.”
How far it has come — and rolled with the punches.
Back in 1990, Fuhrman was an Oklahoma native who had landed a job with Amtrak after graduating from Georgetown Law. From the cozy environs of her Cathedral Commons location, she reflects on how different Union Station was back then, a bustling hub of tourists and commuters eager for retail opportunities.
Today there’s everything from H&M to Magnolia Bakery, but three decades ago she saw an opening at the station, particularly for women. She conceived of a fun hat shop project and the first Proper Topper was born, followed by a Georgetown location near her home on P Street.
Today, Proper Topper operates out of Dupont Circle and its latest iteration at Cathedral Commons, where Fuhrman relies on her network of National Cathedral School parents and students.
“My daughter, Lucy, is attending remote learning classes from NCS in her bedroom. And, at the end of her school day, we both don gloves and masks and hit the road to deliver packages around the city. It’s a new normal,” she says.
Young women whose mothers once worked for the shop are regulars now. “We used to sell scrunchies, and now the kids are looking for them,” she says.
As for hats, you can still find the perfect cloche or garden-party variety, but the shop is a girlygirl’s paradise, with candles, jewelry, headbands and plants — the gift shop that keeps on giving you gift ideas.
Fuhrman explains that, with online shopping edging out small businesses, she leans into her senses when creating the shopping environment.
The shop has a “secret garden” feel, complete with such touches as inspirational quotes on the windows and French jazz. It’s a “feels nice, smells nice” way to shop, she says. In other words: the anti-Amazon.
She’s also proud of the merchandise she’s developed for her adopted hometown, like the “I Heart My Swamp” T-shirts and other pieces advocating D.C. statehood.
Fuhrman’s dream is to one day be back in Georgetown, which she still calls home. We are looking forward to welcoming her — and even the scrunchies — back with open arms.