Amongst some pretty worn-down storefronts in Sharpsburg, seven miles from downtown Pittsburgh, Memories Sportsman and Taxidermy Shop has operated since 1990.
In the musty, cluttered space, owner Sam Stelitano, 65, sells new firearms and collectable ones, like original Smith and Wesson’s and Civil War muskets. But look above the rifle-lined counters, and you see his real passion.
The walls are covered with mounts of deer head, buffalo, fish and blue ribbons. Stelitano is an award-winning taxidermy artist. Three large freezers hold all the specimen, including palomino trout, muskies, snapping turtles and even a coyote.
Stelitano has customers all over the country. He said some non-sportsmen just want decorations for their offices or "man caves."
He has also seen many men who go on multi-generational fishing trips and want to preserve their memories by mounting their catch. They'll bring their catches to Stelitano who skins them, tans them and paints an original likeness, including every painstaking little dot.
That work, he loves. But because of the demand of firearms customers, he enjoys that side of the business much less.
“You get 10 customers, nine of them don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to a gun,” said Stelitano. “And you don’t know what’s their intention, do they want to buy a gun to just go sporting, do they want to go buy a gun to shoot somebody, do they want to buy a gun to commit suicide?”
Stelitano takes it upon himself to evaluate customers and educate them.
“This was a dream for me and my two brothers to be all together,” said Stelitano about his shop. “We’re all hunters, we’re all into guns, and I was supposed to be the taxidermy guy. It worked for about two years until we bumped heads and they left me.”
Now he’s in limbo. He’s tried selling the whole gun business, now he’s trying to sell just the building. For the past few years he’s been liquidating all his inventory. He said everything is for sale and up for negotiations. He’s cut his stock of 400 firearms in half so far.
“I’m just burnt out,” said Stelitano. “I’m tired of trying to do all this and I’m pretty much stuck now until I can get rid of this stuff. What am I supposed to do, take it home? That doesn’t do me any good, that’s my retirement hanging on the walls.”
He said a few people have looked at the building in the past month, but he thinks it will be a while until he can move out.
In the meantime, he’s preparing for the bi-annual world taxidermy competition. He’s going to recreate a hairy frog fish. Stelitano flipped through a large oceanic encyclopedia to find a photo of the deep ocean fish.
“This amazes me,” he said. “I’m so fascinated with this creature, that’s why I’m going to try and do him for the world competition.”
This unique fish is a member of the angler family. It walks on the ocean floor on four fins that act like legs. The fish’s scales look like coral or rock, so it blends in with its environment.
Stelitano has to use non-traditional materials — and invent his own — to recreate it. He hopes he blows the judges away by the mere audacity of what he’s attempted. He said he’s the only one specializing in fish taxidermy in western Pennsylvania. His work has a lot of unique quirk, too, like a fish leaping out of a predator’s mouth.
“I went one step beyond everybody else,” he said. “They mount a fish and put it on the wall. I went into habitat scenes. Just the degree of accuracy as far as reproducing the fish, that’s the hardest part of the business. Fur and feathers you can hide all your mistakes, but when it comes to fish, it’s skin and scales, if you make a mistake it’s hard to hide it.”
Stelitano is obsessed with his work being true to life, and he even buys the most expensive fake eyes that look vein-y. He’s just seen a lot of shoddy work. In fact, he often fixes other people's mounts. He examined one such deer mount that was brought in with a broken horn.
“See these big humpy eyebrows, deer don’t have that, it’s soft, there should be an eyelid within there,” he said. “It’s like everybody wants to be a taxidermist but they can’t because they don’t know what they’re doing.”
He said he hopes the day comes soon when he can close the gun store and take his taxidermy shop back to his house and work in peace. As far as working with people during the day, Stelitano joked that he won’t be too lonely.
“That’s alright," he said. “I’ll talk to my fish.”