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Silicon Alleys: Under Pressure

Hammer & Lewis hit 100 years old last year, but the party will have to wait
SHARP DRESSED MAN: The distinct men's clothing shop at 19 S. First St. in San Jose has attracted all walks of life, even ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons. Photo by Dan Pulcrano

Only Hammer & Lewis Clothiers in downtown San Jose would trigger a matrix of conversation that includes 1970s fashion, the old Woolworth department store and ZZ Top.

Anyone with eons of downtown experience knows Hammer & Lewis, the legendary little shop at 19 S. First St. The old-school marquee, fully intact on the front of the building, is hard to miss.

Less than a minute after I crossed the threshold, Hammer & Lewis proprietor Ivette Velez and I reminisced about nearby businesses from 30 years ago. We unraveled yarns about Woolworth as well as the former Guadalajara Market and even a Mexican bakery. On the wall, I noticed photos of the original store, plus some old downtown shots from a century ago. Ivette schooled me on fashion history, including the emergence of Angel Flights, Ben Davis and Dickies, our conversation crisscrossing decades in a span of moments.

For most of the last century, Hammer & Lewis has specialized in custom Zoot Suits, but one also finds Pendletons, Panama hats, Stacey Adams shoes, accessories and so much more. Despite how it may seem from the lonely sidewalks outside, the place presides over a serious base of customers. They even offer in-house tailoring services that in 2019 drew the likes of ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons.

The original Hammer & Lewis first opened in 1920, making the business now 100 years old. Started by Sig Hammer, a Polish immigrant, the store has endured longer than anything else in downtown San Jose, yet it rarely gets any recognition.

Ivette's mother, Felicita "Fela" Velez, now 88, started working for Hammer in 1950; it was her first job and to this day the only one she's ever had. Her son, Irving, started working in the store in 1963. When Hammer, half of the store's namesake, retired in 1976, the Velez family took over the whole business and have operated it ever since.

For the first 69 years, the store was located on Market Street just north of Santa Clara Street. After the Loma Prieta Earthquake ruined the structure, the family purchased the old A. Hirsh & Son Jewelry building at 19 S. First, which still today retains the original, striking marquee. The terrazzo entryway out front still says A. Hirsh & Son.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus stymied any attempts to celebrate the store's 100th anniversary last year. The owners are even wary of me even spreading the news because they don't want throngs of people showing up and making everything unsafe. Once the world opens up again, there will be a Hammer & Lewis centenary celebration, but not right now, since only a few customers are allowed inside at a time. In short: don't bring a crowd and storm the place. Be patient.

Until then, I'll tell you a story.

When Texas rockers ZZ Top played at the San Jose Civic in January of 2019, they had the following day off, so the band's sharp-dressed guitarist Billy Gibbons ran some errands. Jamie Silvestrini, who works in concert hospitality, was hired to drive Gibbons around. In Silvestrini's retelling, they paraded down First Street toward Good Karma, and Gibbons made a beeline for Hammer & Lewis as soon as he saw the joint. The retro marquee and the shiny clothing did the trick.

"He sees all the suits in the window and he pulls out his cute little flip phone and takes pictures to send to his bandmates," Silvestrini recalled. "So we go in there and look all over. He's picking out shoes and going through all the suits. He looked through everything. ... He ended up dropping a couple grand in there, ordering. I think it was for two custom sets of suits with matching shoes. And he was just tickled to be there. He was so excited."

Later this year, or whenever the world becomes safe again, Hammer & Lewis will throw a party to celebrate 100 years serving downtown San Jose. When the moment comes, you can tell them Billy Gibbons sent you.

"It was right up his alley," Silvestrini said. "He saw the suits all sparkly, and he just cracked me up with his little flip phone. And he filmed the whole marquee. And he was like, 'Wow, you don't see stuff like this.'"