O n the Americana Memories website, there’s a phone number to reach Steve Melillo for “pennant emergencies.”
“It’s exactly what it sounds like,” Melillo says. For example, last month, early in the week of Winter Storm Niko, he received a rush request for a vintage UConn pennant, which was being gifted to a departing university official. Melillo found and framed the pennant, then delivered it on the stormy Thursday, in time for its presentation at a lunch on Friday.
New Haven residents may recognize Melillo as a familiar face on Chapel Street during big days at Yale—graduations, parent weekends, alumni weekends—when he sells decades-old framed college pennants and other memorabilia. They might have also seen his sunny storefront on the corner of Chestnut and Wooster Streets.
The inside of the shop is indeed eye-catching. Neatly framed pennants are hung on the wall, stacked in cases and fanned out on tables. Other displayed items range from figurines to huge victorious banners. Tiny satin flags in school colors, still vivid after decades, are arranged next to cigar box liners—miniature carpets emblazoned with school names. Aside from a few outliers, what ties Melillo’s diverse display together is the college connection and the fact that everything was produced before 1970.
“I’ve always collected,” says Melillo, a native New Havener who works at Yale as a facilities coordinator and event planner. “When I started working at Yale I always liked the Bulldog pennants. I collected some for myself, and people would want them from me and would ask for them. And one thing led to another and they would ask, ‘Well, you have Yale stuff, but do you have anything else?’ And then it slowly kicked in like, ‘Hm. Maybe there’s a business here.’”
Americana Memories is still something he runs in his free time, so hours at the store are by appointment only. Last year, the luxury brand Coach called, looking for pennants to sew onto limited-edition bomber jackets that would debut in time for New York Fashion Week. “So they came down here for six hours and actually bought a bunch of stuff to use in their creative process,” Melillo says. He adds with a touch of pride that Kate Moss was spotted wearing one of the resulting jackets.
Despite making college memorabilia a business, Melillo is still a collector at heart and there are some things he won’t sell. “One of my prized possessions is a 1900s Yale-Harvard-Princeton cigar box made out of tin. That’s one of my favorite pieces, out of everything that I have.” Melillo proudly shows the cigar box to fellow collectors, and he says he has yet to find anyone who says they’ve seen anything else like it.
Another piece Melillo would find it hard to part with is an enormous Brown University pennant from 1911, one of the first pieces he collected. “Feel the old felt. It’s in pretty much perfect condition given the fact that it’s that old.”
One of the compelling things about college memorabilia is that there was so much of it. Schools would produce cheap pennants for games and events, while cigar and food brands like Hormel would include college-themed collectibles as an inducement to buy. The oceanic blues, deep crimsons and turmeric yellows of Melillo’s pennants are still vibrant—a testament to how assiduously they’ve been collected and preserved.
The appeal of collegiate nostalgia is “truly an American thing,” says Melillo’s wife, Kate. A psychologist who’s originally from Ukraine, Kate also helps with the business. She was skeptical at first about the demand for vintage college memorabilia, but then she witnessed a man buy an old Texas A&M pennant for a thousand dollars. “I can’t forget it, because it changed my opinion on pennants and also how people value education here,” she says.
“Here, when you go to the school, you’re part of the history.”
Written and photographed by Anne Ewbank.