February 16, 2017
It doesn’t take me very long to grasp the severity of Neal Mello’s candidness. Following our 37-minute conversation inside Mello & Sons, the vintage and denim shop he owns in Lawrenceville, I know, in great detail, how he met his wife (who happens to be Cyd Mullen, Weisshouse designer and PR manager); that, thanks to the community’s “outpouring of support,” he was “choked up by the end” of Small Business Saturday; that the jeans he’s currently wearing — a pair of Levi’s he bought on Memorial Day — haven’t been washed once. It’s December.
“I was gonna wash ‘em for the opening, but I never got around to it,” he admits. “I air ‘em out, you know, and stuff. They fit perfect.”
After a month-long bout of roadblocks and tribulations — some involving building permits; drywall; gallons of indigo-blue paint; the incredible wooden floor that Mello installed with The Moose Woodshop’s Brandon Stallard, piece by piece, using eight palettes of 150-year-old maple — Mello & Sons opened on Butler Street in mid-November 2016.
It isn’t Mello’s first episode in retail. Or vintage, for that matter. Having lived in New York City for 26 years, he’s worked as a vintage buyer for Ralph Lauren; Urban Outfitters; and Seth Weisser and Gerard Maione of What Goes Around Comes Around, a luxury-vintage retailer in SoHo. In 2011, he and Mullen converted Brooklyn’s Grand Street Bakery — a 25-year-old East Williamsburg bakery — into what would become an acclaimed neighborhood gem by the same name, filled with the thrifted Americana the husband-wife powerhouse collected on road trips in their ‘71 VW camper.
“Me and her were 24/7 [in New York],” Mello says of his wife. “She still has so much to do with the [Pittsburgh] store. But basically, we lived across the street from the Bakery, and we were there every day.”
Fittingly, when family ties and the arrival of their second son brought the couple to Pittsburgh, they wasted no time building out Grand Street Bakery’s sequel.
“I am so psyched to be back in the shop,” says Mello. “I got so lucky with this space. Every time I looked at a space [to rent in Lawrenceville], it was gone. So fast. I was like, ‘What the fuck am I supposed to do? I have to get this space.’ But it all worked out. I rolled the dice and it worked out.”
In the event you’ve been immune to publications’ periodic comparisons between Brooklyn and gentrified, in-demand Lawrenceville, the neighborhoods are thought to be quite similar. Mello laughs when I ask if that feels accurate.
“You know what? I do,” he says. “I’m here [in Lawrenceville] every day. And all these people that own these shops here? They’re here every day. They own the shop. They might have somebody work once in a while, or a day or two. But all the owners are here. You know? They’re all working their asses off. That’s the comparison that fits [Brooklyn] the most, for sure. So, let’s see how it goes.”
Named affectionately after his sons (which, in itself, is so perfect that I could cry right here and now), Mello & Sons, much like the Bakery, has been immediately successful. The place boasts the same kind of vintage apparel as its New York counterpart — hard to spot, harder to track down, 100-percent one-of-a-kind — and the same vibes, too. Barring any health or beauty items and roughly 20 percent of the clothing, which is brand new and American-made by trusted brands like Levi’s, everything in the store is an original. The fixtures, the design elements, the incredible men’s and women’s vintage pieces that Mello scours the country for on buying trips. Hell, even the cash wrap has history: It’s the same counter, knife marks and all, that the original Grand Street Bakery used to slice bread and bagels. And that neon “M” in the front window? It’s a material-reuse warehouse find, long-retired from its days of starring in Maybelline New York commercials. (Mello dropped the “N” and the “Y” at Construction Junction a few months back, if you’ve any use for them.)
“We really do have stuff that you’re not gonna find anywhere in Pittsburgh,” Mello says of his inventory. “For sure. Guaranteed. And it’s … you know, you never know what’s gonna happen.”
He hints at a possible local art pop-up gallery in the back of the shop, draws out his plans to build one more fitting room (from recycled parts, obviously), and seems genuinely humbled by my plaudits for the store’s ethos and overall execution. Surely, it’s easy to love a place like this. Cozy and casual and nostalgic; yet, somehow, almost intimidatingly cool; and above all, never pretentious — the latter of which is difficult for a millennial-era vintage haunt to pull off.
For your own sake, visit Mello & Sons. Talk to Neal Mello. Ask him about things. Try to appreciate, if nothing else, the sheer, mostly labor-intensive tenacity his namesake was built on. I swear: There are times throughout our conversation, when the sunlight pierces the storefront, that I’m sure I can make out scattered, unidentifiable stains. Whether blood or sweat or good ol’ tears, I’m not sure. I wonder if Mello knows they’re there. But it’s obvious.
Of course he does.