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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Panama Hat and one of the Greatest Retail Stores before Corporate Destroyed It.

The Panama Hat. I've worn Panama Hats for over thirty years. Here's a fun background of mine on how I was introduced to them. I hope you might enjoy!

Today, when one thinks of Banana Republic, one has an image of a sterile, boring, store, which fits into the cookie-cutter format that all clothing stores seem to fit into. They are all about as exciting as soggy cardboard.

Banana Republic wasn't always that way, however. Back in 1979, two journalists, Mel and Patricia Ziegler, a married couple, left their jobs and started Banana Republic . The etymology of the term Banana Republic goes back to O Henry's use of it in his book "The Admiral". Loosely defined, Banana Republic is defined as a third-world country, most likely in Latin America, although for the store, it could be any worldwide ports of call, or exotic, less refined destination. For what they were doing, it was the perfect fit. They promoted a lifestyle of adventure, exploration, and even literature. 

Banana Republic was a very, very different sort of company back then. Their approach was way off the beaten path of conventional clothing stores. To begin with, their title was “Banana Republic Travel and Safari Clothing inc.” They had their own, very unique nitch, carrying products that no one else did. Where else could you find a bush vest, for instance? Or a ventilated shirt? A Bahia Dress? A Ladies Jumpsuit? Plus, they also had quite an original way of presenting their products.

Their stores were likewise. They had a WWII era Jeep mounted on a rock base, coming through the front window! Real palm trees were throughout the store. A vintage bi-plane would be hanging from the ceiling, as well. Kind of saying “We're a lot different than the norm!” And they indeed were! Here was a clothing store which also had a bookstore, focused in the direction of travel and safari. Who would think of going shopping for clothes and leaving with a Zane Gray book? This store was not for the ignorant.

Let's look at their catalog, for an example. All the other stores would have large 8x10 glossy catalogs, lined with models wearing their products. That wasn't Banana Republic's style, however. Banana Republics' catalog was a 4” X 6” catalog on a course paper. There were no models, but rather artistic images of both the product, as well as drawings of people wearing their product.

Additionally, there were stories in each catalog, written by authors, which depicted the travel and safari lifestyle. Some were dramatic, yet others humorous. Interviews as well. 

Their catalog, stem-to-stern, was the thing that dreams were made of. Within the context of that catalog, a combination of the essay based stories on travel exploration and safaris, interview,s and in the end, the products, all combined to be the essence of what dreams were made of. It was 360 degrees. They painted the picture of the lifestyle and made it very easily attainable for their clientele to put themselves squarely into that fantasy/reality. Banana Republic made those dreams come true.

Certainly not the approach taken by the big conglomerates. As a matter of fact, this approach was the antithesis of everything corporate.

They had grown to a couple of stores in California when they received an offer from the parent firm of The Gap, to buy them out. The owners would still be in control of the stores, but corporate overseers had the ability to offer expansion. It was a great offer at the time. Before long, the stores with Jeeps barreling over rocks in the front of the stores were coast-to-coast.

Living on the east coast, this was how I became familiar with them. One of the first things I bought from them was a Panama Hat. I've had Panama Hats ever since. When I first saw it available, I had to have one. It was me.

Not only did I get a Panama Hat, but I also got the fascinating history behind them, from Banana Republic!

The Panama Pat, to start with, is actually not from Panama at all. Panama hats are actually from Ecuador! The type of straw they are made from is called Toquilla (say: toh KEY ya) and is unique to Ecuador.

The story goes, back when Americans were building the Panama Canal, they were issued the hats as protection from the sun. The workers immediately realized that the hats were quite stylish and set them to San Francisco in order to make some additional money. They were a big success! The stores in San Francisco, having received the hats from Panama, called them Panama Hats and the name stuck!

Banana Republic continued and stayed true to form until 1988 when the Stock Market nose dived. The parent company decided on boring, corporate bullshit approach that everyone else was doing. Gone were the Jeeps driving through the windows, travel and safari clothing, the incredible catalog, as well as the founders, Mel and Patricia Ziegler. Before that, they had excitement, pizzazz, and a totally assume “WOW!” factor, rivaled by no one. Regretfully today, Banana Republic can't hold a candle to its own roots. Itcan best be described now as a “Sleeping Pill”.

I miss the old Banana Republic. Not only did they sell me an absolutely beautiful hat, they also took the time to tell me what I was buying. They painted a picture via the story behind it. In their catalog, they taught me about the hat and it's history. They also explained the style of Panama Hat that I purchased. The Panama Hat that I bought from them is what's known as a “Fino”, or, The Finest. I see people today buying Panama Hats which are lesser variations. They'll lack the flowing grace of the Fino. The lesser hats will have imperfections in the weave, often leaving bumps where they don't belong or a brim that just doesn't flow. The contour of the vertical portions of the hat, combined with the graceful flow of the brim makes a perfect Fino.

A Fino today runs around $100, give or take $15. The first couple I bought from Banana Republic, however, after the corporate bullshit hit the fan, they didn't carry them anymore. I've gone elsewhere since. You can find them easily online. My current one, which is due for replacement, I purchased from a haberdashery here in Key West, about three years ago. I've been wearing Panama Hats for thirty-two years.

                                                                A Perfect Fino

With the Fino Panama Hat, don't turn the brim up vertically on the sides at all. The Fino will have a natural wave to it. It's possible you may want to accentuate that wave, but be certain it remains subtle, easy flowing wave. The front of the brim should be slightly bent down. The Fino is style and grace. Think of it's flow to be akin of that of a Bentley, or a Ferrari.


Never let your dreams die!

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If you'd like to support my efforts, please look into my music, as well as my book "Bar Stories"!

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CD Baby

Amazon (song “Island Blue”)

Also, please check out my book “Bar Stories”. It's a fun book about various bar situations I've seen, witnessed, or participated in over the decades. If you're looking for a depressing book, you're in the wrong place!

This book is FUN! Additionally, purchasing this book also is helping me write the three other books I am currently working on: “The Absolute Best Bars in the Florida Keys”, “Living On A Tropical Island” (also known at this point as “Island Living”), and “Time Traveler”. Bar Stories is only: 


Friday, June 23, 2017

How to Plan Your Key West Trip!



I have a saying about people who travel to the Keys and Key West “ The smart ones leave on Monday, and the really smart ones leave on Tuesdays, and late on Tuesdays at that! Leaving on Sunday, well, let's just say that's not the way to go. If someone leaves on Saturday, they need psychiatric care.

Let's look at the Tuesday departure. A lot of people will come here for one of the many events that are held over the year. Perhaps they are here for The Songwriter's Festival, MOTM, Hemingway Days, The Lobster Fest, Art Festivals, you name it. What do they all have in common? They all end on Sunday. With the events which are more spread out, take the Songwriter's Festival, or MOTM, where there are multiple happenings, they have visitors scampering about town running from place to place. They will see this event at 1 pm, another at 2 pm, yet another at 3:30, another at 5 pm, another at 7 pm, meet their friends for dinner at 8, someplace else at 9. They actually under the delusion that this is a vacation. The fact is, they are busting their ass twenty times more than they do the other fifty-one weeks of the year!

Most people leave on Sunday. What happens is that they go home completely exhausted! Yes, they saw all kinds of things, people, and events which truly enriched their lives. However, what they didn't do on their vacation, is relax. Instead, they ran themselves through the ringer.

Leaving late Tuesday afternoon, or evening makes so much more sense. If you leave Wednesday it's even better. Give yourself some time to decompress. Relax a little. Take some time for a stroll at night and smell the jasmine. Sit on the veranda of The Cork and Stogie and have a libation, watching the world go by, as the trade winds breeze through your hair. Sit in the garden at Hemingway's house and read one of his books that you can pick up at the small store there. Perhaps a day at Fort Zachery Taylor enjoying the fort itself, or the beach. Perhaps a Conch Train ride will fit your style? It's loaded with historical information!

There are loads of choices of things to do where you can just relax, and take it all in.

Remember: Rushing around is a mainland mentality. When in the Keys, do as the locals do.


I'm seeing more and more people arriving here twice a year. They will come initially for an event, as mentioned above, but they will return for a second trip, solely for the relaxation aspect. They're back to smell the aforementioned Jasmine if you will. They don't have to be anyplace at any time. Additionally, right now in the summer, rates are at their lowest. Someone was telling me they were paying $139 a night. Other rooms were less and others more. However, it makes so much sense on so many levels ranging from the chill out factor to the economic factor.


One of the interesting things that happen here is when visitors arrive into town, they will rush up to us, wide-eyed with exuberant and excited looks on their faces, arms outstretched, hollering like mad people “YES!!! WE'RE IN KEY WEST! LETS PARTY!!!!”

This, of course, is one of the things that one signs up for when they move here. All of us were like that when we came as visitors, to begin with. However, living here in a day to day life is different than visiting for a week. While it is different than visiting, I will say that I don't want to live any place else in the world! I used to work with a very intelligent and insightful guy named Andy Colby. Andy would say sometimes “This town will chew you up and spit you out if you're not careful”. Andy was right too. I lost track of those who left the islands with serious alcohol conditions.

Sometimes those visiting will have the go here, go there, go here, go there agenda. They need to relax! HA HA!

As for us, we generally pace ourselves. We live here. We have professions we need to perform at.

                                         Caribbean Club, Key Largo

On rare occasions, people will ask us “Where do you go for vacations? After all, you live in a vacation destination”. I always laugh when someone says “Key West is so laid back”. Yeah, go to the two hundred block of Duval at midnight. That's Hell on wheels, out of control at 200MPH. That's not laid back.

What we do is head to the other end of the Conch Republic. That's laid back! Some asshole from the lower Keys started a rant saying that the upper Keys, Key Largo to Marathon, was just an extension of Miami/Dade. What a load of complete bullshit, and that's the nicest way I can put it. Key Largo, Islamorada (say Isle more ah dah), Layton... have the exact same amount of keys magic as the lower Keys. I spent thirty years hanging out there, as well as playing there and it's truly magnificent. There are loads of great places to stay. Ours is Sunset Cove, in Key Largo!

I always recommend staying a day or two in the upper Keys when heading to Key West! 

E) Whatever you do and wherever you go, be sure to get out on the water. Sunset cruises are the perfect answer. Inexpensive and not too time-consuming. Plus, they have open bars on them as well.

For the best 10 bars in the Florida Keys, check this blog from a few years ago!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

What Makes a Great Bar? The New Latitude 18, St. Thomas USVI

What makes a great bar, a great bar? Without a doubt, the people in the bar, patrons, and employees are what make up the crux of a great bar. However, it is the owner, proprietor, publican, whatever one likes to label the individual who holds title to the business. It is they who sets the standard by which said patrons and employees gravitate to. In this case, Rick Holmberg set the atmosphere of The New Latitude18 and made it a great bar.

Last year, April 2016, I was on a music cruise with Dani. Our first stop was at St. Thomas, USVI. Our good friend Jeff Lange, who lives on St. Thomas, had set up an afternoon for the group of musicians that we were with on the cruise, to play at The New Latitude 18. Naturally, we were looking forward to it!

We were due into port at 8 am, however at 4 am I started having issues with my heart. I've had issues for twenty years, so I'm kind of used to them in a way. On the flip side, we're not talking about a hangnail. When your heart is having issues, you drop everything, before it drops you.

I checked into the ship's infirmary and they stabilized my situation, however, they insisted I be sent to the hospital on St. Thomas when we arrived in port. I told Dani to go to the event at The New Latitude 18 and I'd call and join her when I was released.

Bottom line, I wasn't released. I had to see a cardiologist who wouldn't be there for two more days. I told Dani to go back on the ship and I'd come back via the airlines. She wouldn't have any of that. So what's next?

Well, the owner of the bar, Rick Holmberg, got wind of the predicament, I believe from our friend Jeff Lange. Rick invited Dani to use the band room, which was an RV, at no cost. Not only that, he chauffeured her back and forth to the hospital a few times a day, about a five or six-mile drive.

Understand, Rick had only met Dani a few hours before and here he was offering her a place to stay, at no cost, in addition to driving her back and forth to see me.

If anyone looks up the word “Compassion” they'll find Rick's image next to the word.

I met the cardiologist on Thursday, had a procedure done and was released on Friday. That's when I met Rick. As you might surmise, he came to pick me up with Dani.

When we arrived at The New Latitude 18, I immediately was in love with the bar. Very relaxed, on the water, nothing false about it at all. My type of bar.

I got on with Rick from the get go. I felt we were cut from the same cloth. We had a great conversation when he drove me to the pharmacy. He told me some of his past struggles and loss and I told him some of my own. Talk about fortitude, here is a bar owner that no longer drinks, yet he's surrounded by it every day.

That evening he asked Dani and I if we'd like to pay at The New Latitude 18 on Saturday night? He didn't have anyone scheduled. Of course, we would!

Again, here's a man who when the chips were down for us, not only put two complete strangers up for free, but also gave us a paying gig!

Here are two Facebook videos of our gig at Latitude 18

So, what makes a great bar? This is what makes a great bar. People like Rick Holmberg. The individual at the top sets the standard by which everything else falls into place. The patrons and the staff were all just marvelous. I recall talking to a staff member about our situation and how Rick came to our rescue. They smiled, shook their head and said “That sounds like Rick”. Everyone we bumped into all had fabulous things to say about Rick.

Today I learned that Rick is moving on to new adventures. I don't know what they may be? I've seen him traveling a lot in the last year on Facebook, literally all over the world. In a selfish way, I'm sorry he's moving on. Dani and I often talked about heading back to The New Latitude 18 and hanging out with him again. However, life changes for us in many ways. Rick is off on a new adventure and I am very happy and excited for him. It also may be good that he's off on a new adventure. The world needs more exposure to folks like Rick. However, I do hope in his travels, our paths cross again.

Rick Holmberg is one damn good human being.

Bon Voyage my friend!