BUFFALO — Dave Horesh and business partner Brett Mikoll are just about 10 years into delivering one pennant after another after another in a city where local fans are certainly aware that title flags have not been, shall we say, all that easy to manufacture.
But here, in a century-plus-old downtown Main Street office building, Horesh and Mikoll are literally in the pennant-making business as the co-founders of Oxford Pennant, with its 55 full-time employees, a second floor tricked out to accommodate 16 craftsmen sewers, and a mission to build a niche market for the olde tyme woolen tri-corner flags.
Horesh and Mikoll believe they make a better pennant, one that may cost twice the price at souvenir stands stocked deep in a cacophony of merchandise including T-shirts, coffee cups, bobbleheads, and ballcaps. Their bet is that the touch and feel of felt, the standard pennant fabric of the 1950s and ‘60s, along with overall attention to detail and design, will carry consumers back in time, win over their wallets.
“For it’s money they have,” Terence Mann said in “Field of Dreams”, prophesying how nostalgia-besotted fans would flock to a ballyard carved out of an Iowa cornfield, “and peace they lack.”
Horesh, 37, defines the attraction to that old-time feel more in business terms, describing Oxford as a “premium throwback product” he hopes will prove to be “resonant with fans.”
“They will see,” mused Horesh, a University of Buffalo graduate who majored in psychology, “and I won’t pull any punches … they will see our $28 pennant right next to a [competitor’s] $14 pennant, and my hope is that the design side of what we do, as well as the quality and nature of the manufacturing, will push the consumer in our direction.”
Oxford, located a short walk from Delaware North, the concessions giant chaired by Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, soon will be crafting the pennants for the Bruins’ upcoming 100-year anniversary celebration. According to Horesh, Oxford also has a licensing deal with Minor League Baseball and is in the final stages of completing an agreement with the National Hockey League and the NHLPA (the players union).
For decades, beginning just more than 100 years ago, this city was synonymous with the manufacturing of sports pennants under the now-defunct “Trench” label.
Founded in 1920 by George A. Trench, the company eventually owned a massive piece of the pennant market share while housed for years, coincidentally, in a Main Street manufacturing facility just steps from the Oxford address. Oxford today is attempting to build out a 21st-century business from similar wool-based threads that were the fabric of Trench Manufacturing.
Trench folded in bankruptcy in the 1990s and does not share roots in Oxford’s business. But its long and oft-prosperous run was due in large part to a deal forged in the mid-20th century between George Trench and the locally-operated concessions business know as Sportservice, founded by Louis Jacobs and his two brothers.
Sportservice grew into the Jacobs-family-owned behemoth known today as Delaware North. Trench signed its deal with Sportservice in the midst of the concessionaire securing deals to bring its hot dogs, popcorn and soft drinks into scores of ballparks, arenas, and race tracks across the country in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Along with the popcorn, Sportservice brought Trench pennants, which for years included a highly popular model featuring a printed rendition of the ballpark itself. Check your grandfather’s garage in Bolton or Montpelier or Bangor. There could be one of Trench’s Fenway Park pennants hanging in the rafters. Look for the telltale Trench initials “T.M.”, typically printed on the back.
Richard Johnson, curator of the Sports Museum housed at TD Garden, is in the midst of constructing the museum’s display that will honor the Bruins’ 100-year anniversary. He also co-authored and edited the soon-to-be-released book, “Blood, Sweat and 100 Years”. The museum over the decades has collected a large tub of Bruins-related pennants, a few of which will be included in the display.
“Oh, absolutely,” said Johnson. “Pennants are the garnish. They’re like the parsley on a big platter of prime rib … they’re always great, and the older the better. The older designs are really pretty cool.”
In a souvenir world that has exploded with choices over the last 50-plus years, the simple tri-corner pennant has endured. It’s a flag still held high. Long ago, especially in the world before plastics, it was the souvenir stand’s anchor tenant, its mainstay, carried home by kids and adults alike, tacked or taped to walls, sometimes framed.
“They were almost a must design element of any childhood room,” noted Johnson, 68, who grew up in Worcester an ardent fan of the Bruins, Red Sox, and Celtics. He’s still not sure who scribbled in the mustache on the leprechaun featured in the Celtics pennant that hung on his bedroom wall.
“I guess that’s going to help the price on eBay,” kidded Johnson, “right?”
Original pennants from decades gone by, crafted out of felt as if peeled from the top of a pool table, can command a premium in the collectibles market.
“Absolutely,” said Phil Castinetti, owner of Sportsworld in Saugus, the largest collectibles shop in the area. “Some of the old stuff, like pennants for the Brooklyn Dodgers back in the ‘50s, championships … stuff like that will go for $300 or $400.”
Oxford, said Horesh, is projected to finish its current fiscal year with some $6 million in sales. He acknowledges the company’s niche and says it’s in no way out to rival, say, WinCraft, the industry big dog for pennants and all manner of merch. He likes what he and Mikoll, Oxford’s chief designer, have created, how all its products are handcrafted in a city they love.
Like a tree grows in Brooklyn, a pennant shop grows again in Buffalo, thousands upon thousands of pieces each year running through the hands of the fastidious sewers on the second floor at 810 Main St. They work in near silence, eyes on needle and thread, the only interruption the incessant, muted “briipppps” of their machines as they finish an edge or add a pair of classic ties.
“They’re the heartbeat of the company,” said Horesh. The sewing crew, he added, is “an element of the company that I am incredibly proud of.”
In 10 years, said Horesh, he has received a handful of letters to let him know Oxford banners have become keepsakes in perpetuity, enclosed in the caskets of loved ones. They were not pieces, he noted, specifically designed for a wake or burial.
“It’s usually been, you know, a pennant that features grandpa’s favorite team, or place, maybe his cottage at the lake,” he said. “And it’s always grandpas, not grandmas. I don’t know why that is, but … ”
There is never knowing for sure what makes the consumer happy. Oxford is out to test the limits of pennant fever.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.