Outside a hidden storefront on York Street sits a table, piled with rugs. You’ve probably seen it on your way to the Humanities Quadrangle or Toad’s. Perhaps you linger for a moment as your gaze sets on the centrally displayed Yale bulldog rug, and you continue on your way. These rugs, however, are not merely furnishings; they course with stories and history, and the man behind this operation has a long-standing, rich connection with Yale and the rug trade.Store owner, historian and Yale graduate Steven Rosenthal ’68 welcomed me into The Kilim Company and led me down narrow wooden stairs into a basement that bursted with color, symmetry and style. Hanging and lying, draped and folded — rugs covered every corner of their room, and their palettes ranged from deep maroons and browns to vibrant oranges and blues. Some depicted mythological scenes; others bore aesthetically pleasing patterns.“In good Middle Eastern fashion, why don’t you sit on a pile of rugs?” Rosenthal said before we began our conversation.Steven Rosenthal settled into New Haven in 1964 as a first-year student at Yale, where he would earn four degrees and develop a budding passion for Middle Eastern history. While he was writing for his PhD, Rosenthal conducted research in Istanbul. Every day, the archives would close at 3:00 p.m., so, to improve his Turkish language skills, he would head to the grand bazaar, a huge market. There he became completely enamored with kilims and began to collect.“I was bitten by the rug bug,” Rosenthal said. “I am blessed with a wife who is smarter than I am, and she said, ‘you have so many rugs you should open a store.’”He opened The Kilim Company in 1979. The store is one of the last independent businesses that has remained afloat in the area, and it is truly a one-man operation; Rosenthal does his own accounting and purchases and sells all of the rugs himself.Rosenthal’s perspective on Yale is a unique and informed one. He has experienced the university as a student, nearby business owner and parent — his daughter attended Yale, and his family has collectively earned eight degrees from the university. He reminisced about his Yale experience: weekly road trips, inspiring professors, and a tradition of injecting vodka into oranges.

Rosenthal graduated the year before Yale became co-educational. He said that in many ways, Yale is less exclusionary than it was when he was a student. He reflected that, in his opinion, the recent change has been for the better.

“Yale has always been very good to me,” he said.

When he wanted to learn Ottoman Turkish — a combination of Turkish, Arabic and Persian — for purposes of his archival research, and Yale didn’t offer any courses in the language, Yale paid for him to go to the School of Oriental Studies in London to learn it.

His passion for Middle Eastern studies has only grown since his college years. Rosenthal is a tenured professor and chairman of the history department at the University of Hartford, where he teaches Middle Eastern history. The Kilim Company operates on a loose schedule, with the store hours revolving around Rosenthal’s teaching hours. He considers his rug business a passionate hobby, not a main source of income.

As both a professor and a rug connoisseur, he writes about Middle Eastern history and takes part in the society, as well. The way he puts these cultural engagements in conversation affords him an interesting outlook.

He has spent a lot of time in Turkey, volunteering in the Peace Corps there and routinely visiting during summer and winter breaks for forty years. He would buy most of his rugs from the grand bazaar in the week between Christmas and New Year’s — the week before Turkish taxes were due.

He became very good at bargaining with rug dealers; when they would negotiate at markets, dealers often had their cost prices in Ottoman Turkish, expecting Americans would not understand. Since Rosenthal had learned the language, he earned an advantage in bargaining.

In addition to purchases at bazaars, Rosenthal would often travel by bus to villages in the countryside of Turkey, where he would be greeted with hospitality and excitement.

“But, it would be sort of embarrassing,” Rosenthal told me. “Because at times, they would sacrifice a sheep in my honor.”

Rosenthal said that now, he imagines the scene looks very different, but when he would visit Ankara, the capital of Turkey, fifty years ago, he found cows traversing the streets. Since then, Turkey has undergone a major transformation in wealth.

The rug business, he said, has moved East during his time in the trade: from India to Pakistan, China and Afghanistan. Because of the tense political climate in these places, his acquisitions of the past five years have been through other buyers.

His expertise is on kilims and pile carpets. Kilims, which are flat-woven rugs, were pioneered by peasants and nomads for their own use. Pile carpets have more of a height, and include knots along with warps and wefts. They have always primarily been created for the market.

In Islamic culture, Rosenthal pointed out a lack of distinction between fine and practical art. He showed me a salt-bag and a piece of luggage — practical in nature but designed like fine compositions, illustrating lush scenes and patterns.

“They are so human,” Rosenthal said about rugs.

He said that, though the phrase “every rug has a story” is a cliché among rug dealers, many rugs do.