A look inside the Quebec City hat shop where 'it's as though time stopped'

For 30 years, tourists flocked from across the globe to find the best panama hat at BiBi & Compagnie, an eccentric hat shop in Vieux-Québec.

After 30 years in Vieux-Québec, BiBi & Compagnie is trying something new

Reine Biron, wearing a beret, and Réjean Breton are seen working in the shop they ran together, surrounded by their remarkable selection of new and vintage hats. (Submitted by Reine Biron)

A timeless treasure trove in Vieux-Québec has closed up shop after nearly three decades.

BiBi & Compagnie, with its golden yellow awnings on Garneau Street, is known around the world for its unique selection of timeless hats.

The 970-square-foot boutique was stacked from floor to ceiling with hats of all kinds: tweed caps, deep-red fedoras, cloche hats, fur-lined aviator-style hats and panama hats.

"It's as though time stopped," Raul Inglada says.

He befriended the shop owners as a customer, and is now helping them as they move online. Inglada's hat of choice is a classic black fur felt bowler. Think Chaplin.

"It has a special kind of charm you cannot find everywhere," Inglada says of BiBi & Compagnie.

Run by two dedicated hat lovers, the store seemed much older than its 30 years.

Reine Biron found a lifelong friend and associate in Réjean Breton when they met in 1992 and spent the better part of the next three decades side by side, convincing even the most reluctant of customers to try on audacious hats.

Reine Biron and Réjean Breton are seen inside BiBi & Companie in the mid-1990s. (Submitted by Reine Biron)

Breton remembers telling naysayers to let their friends experiment with the kinds of hats they wear.

"When I hear others say, 'You don't have a hat head,' I tell them, 'Hey, hey, come here. You have as much a head for hats as you have feet for shoes,'" he says.

Breton says anyone can wear a hat, they just have to find the right style and the right size.

A hat for everyone

"I visited the shop for over 25 years, and I have never left without at least one new, marvellous hat," wrote Michael Cairn, an American who calls Maine home, on one travel site.

"The man knows his hats!" he wrote of Breton. The review echoes what many international tourists have shared.

Joel Lavoie proudly preens for the camera, wearing a three-piece suit and a top hat — one of a dozen or so he purchased at BiBi over the years. (Submitted by Joel Lavoie)

While tourists, particularly during the cruise season, made up a good chunk of the foot traffic, Joel Lavoie is one of the store's dedicated local customers. Lavoie stands out on St-Jean Street — the city's main drag — often wearing a three-piece suit, complete with cane and top hat to accessorise.

For Lavoie, hats aren't just a fashion statement, but an investment. His signature top hat is a particular source of pride.

"It's made with beaver, it's very beautiful … it's something you can leave in your will!" he says.

"It's always a pleasure to shop with people who like what they do.… There are fewer and fewer people who do this kind of work with their hands."

Biron and Breton kept the store open 11 months out of the year. In January, the two would travel south, visiting different hat makers in Mexico and Ecuador (contrary to popular belief, authentic Panama hats are made in Ecuador, not Panama).

Over the years, BiBi hired very few employees, preferring to manage the store themselves.

One former employee, Zoé Laporte, recounts how seriously the two took their craft — surprising customers with a style of hat they would have never picked out themselves.

Zoé Laporte, wearing her favourite fur felt women’s style top hat while enjoying a coffee on St-Jean Street, worked part time with Reine and Réjean from 2012 until 2016. (Julia Caron/CBC)

"Often, I would see Réjean just gauging someone, placing the hat on the top of the head of the person. And it was always the right fit," says Laporte.

Biron, on the other hand, could be quite poetic when it came to her love of hats. Laporte remembers her often saying that a hat isn't complete until it finds its owner.

While there were many happy customers, Biron and Breton also had a reputation for being particular — or somewhat prickly — with some customers.

Breton is open about how he would often tell would-be customers to look elsewhere if they were looking for faux-fur or other other hats he considered to be cheaply made.

Moving online

The former location of BiBi & Compagnie in Quebec’s old city, located on Garneau Street. A for-rent sign has been in the window since March 2022. (Julia Caron/CBC)

In 2019, Biron's health began to decline. Now in her 80s, Breton explained that she needed to "slow down."

Soon after, the pandemic emptied the city of its tourists.

Maintaining enough sales to pay their $1,300 monthly rent became a struggle. When the building's new owner raised their rent, they decided to close the shop before the 2022 tourist season.

Help from a fellow hat lover

Today, the hundreds of hats once proudly displayed on styrofoam heads are gently packed away in boxes and stored in a downtown warehouse.

Inglada is going to help Biron transition Bibi & Compagnie into an online boutique.

"They're going to have the same service. They can come here to adjust if the hat is not the right size. We have to keep it human," Inglada says.

Réjean Breton stands proudly amid stacks of boxes filled with the store’s precious stock. Raul Inglada, right, is helping transition the physical shop into an online boutique. (Julia Caron/CBC)

Breton makes parallels between the work of cobblers, or other craftspeople who repair old things instead of having a customer simply buy a new replacement.

"People need this expertise," Laporte says. "Some believe it's just a fashion accessory that you don't need very much. But the art form is not gone."

Inglada and Biron are planning to launch the online shop this spring.