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Thrifting by the Seat of His Pants

Vintage Clothing Storeowner Neal Mello

For Neal Mello, owner of the new vintage clothing store Neal Mello on Grand Street in Williamsburg, the philosophy behind what clothes to carry is simple.

“Either clothes that I would wear,” said the dark-bearded Mello (who, it must be said, was wearing an old blue and green flannel shirt), “or clothes that I want to see a girl wear. Or anything else. Could be a bike, could be a piece of furniture—anything that’s cool that I like. I don’t really care about the trends. It’s just my style. It’s just an extension of me.”

Mello, a cheerful and energetic man in his thirties, professed an affinity for clothes from the 1980’s or older and ones made in the USA.

“I’m always looking for denim jackets, flannels, sweatpants,” he said. “The basics. The store is like my big closet or something. And if I had a girl living with me,” he laughed.

Browsing the racks of Neal Mello, you’ll find a modest but expertly-curated selection of items for reasonable prices: $20 flannel shirts from the 1970’s, $40 Lee jean jackets, $50 peplum party dresses. (As unbearably adorable as it may sound, it should also be noted that Neal Mello is the only vintage store that carries vintage clothing for both humans and dogs. Mello’s dog Stanley, a rambunctious four-month old English bulldog, can often be found in the store, befriending customers and gnawing on rawhides.) Besides the apparel—and the Exile on Main Street-era playlist that was playing during the interview—the store is vintage in other ways too.

“Basically this whole place was built on things I found in the trash,” said Mello. All kinds of raw or recycled materials have been used in the construction of the space and displays: rust-covered pulleys, ropes, fish hooks, standards salvaged from the sidewalk in Greenpoint (where Mello resides), you name it. Even the paint-splattered door to the back room has been refashioned.

“That was the sawhorse where we cut everything,” he said cheerfully.

The store’s centerpiece, two giant red lights in the shape of the letters N and M—Mello’s initials—were also the product of creative refashioning. Originally, the letters were used in a television commercial for Maybelline New York. The letters had been found at a local scrap yard by Mello and his team of friends and former coworkers at Urban Outfitters who fixed the bulbs and soldered what needed soldering. Mello’s do-it-yourself ethos is something he shares with many local residents turned small business owners, including his friend and neighboring shop owner Jeremy Bielser, who stopped by to say hello and share a beer.

Mello got his start in vintage clothing at Urban Outfitters. Fresh out of high school, Mello spent thirteen years at the popular alternative clothing retailer, moving up the ranks from salesperson, to manager, to merchandiser, to the role of vintage buyer.

After being let go toward the end of last year, Mello’s original plan had been to purchase a 1972 Volkswagen camper van and sell clothing at flea markets in New York. If hadn’t had been for traffic along the way to a large vintage wholesaler in New Jersey, Mello might still be at a table somewhere, or beneath a tent. The idea for opening a store came from a timely encounter with Bielser, a former coworker of Mello’s for many years at Urban Outfitters. Over drinks Bielser mentioned a commercial space for rent right next to his own store, the bookstore/art gallery By and By, which we profiled last week. The next day Mello decided to view the space.

“This thing was covered,” he said, pointing a rugged jewelry display that, in a former life, had once been a chimney. “That was covered. There was this weird wall. I was like, ‘I’ll take it.’ Forget buying the van, I’ll just take that money and take my 401(k). Boom.”

Things have come together quickly for Mello’s store, which has only been open since Christmas.

“All these stores that have been opening up here, everybody has been helping each other out, word of mouth,” he said. He seemed happy with the neighborhood and the sense of community that has sprung up among the new businesses that have opened up along his stretch of Grand Street, between Union and Lorimer.

“I would love to try to do something with local designers. Everyone in the neighborhood has been phenomenal and supportive. It’s good.”

Owning his own store has been a goal of Mello’s for a long time—ever since he started dealing with vintage clothing, over fifteen years ago. Although times are still tough, Mello says he’s not worried.

“I just feel like, once people come in here, it’s going to be fine,” he said. “I actually feel like, because of the economy, I was able to get a reasonable rate to get a spot. It’s a good time to take a chance. My parents were like, ‘Are you out of your mind? You’re going to try to open up a store now, at this time?’ But that’s the best time to go for it. You know [the economy] is going to come out of it.”

Expect Neal Mello to stay opened on evenings when By and By has an opening or an event. In the summer, the store plans to host barbeques in the garden. Also in the works are movie screenings, bands, even maybe a comedy show. Mello is open to it.

“It’s pretty laid back here,” said the ever-hospitable and easy-going Mello. It was around 4pm in the afternoon, but he popped open a can of Coors Light. He smiled.

“I stay open late,” he said. “If I’ve got beers in the cooler, I offer. If I’m having one, I don’t want to be rude. I think it’s really going to start coming together when we start having barbeques and events in the back. It’s been so gratifying. The response has been good. It’s really been a dream come true.”

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