After 25 Years, Little Russia To Close Its Doors

Mount Auburn institution sells Slavic jewelry, trinkets

Leslie Theophile

Nathan Schiller the owner of Little Russia, displays a toy cat that he assembled himself. The wooden figure is among the remaining items for sale at the Harvard Square store, which will soon close for good.

Harvard students streamed into Little Russia one day about 15 years ago, not to buy nesting dolls or painted eggs, but to check off an item on their scavenger hunt—one Nathan Schiller, screenwriter, Soviet emigre and owner of the Harvard Square folk art store.

“I had Harvard students in all day, a couple, several every hour,” says Vera Gross, Schiller’s daughter, who was behind the counter as students entered in search of the owner’s name. “I just started handing them the business card.”

But soon the 80-year-old Schiller will be even harder to find for would-be scavenger hunters as he closes up Little Russia after about a quarter-century in the Square.

The store’s lease has expired, and Little Russia will remain in its space at 99 Mt. Auburn St. only until the landlord finds a new tenant.

Schiller says that he just couldn’t make a long-term commitment to keeping the store open.

“[The landlord] asked me to sign the lease for five years. Because I am now 80 years old, that’s not possible to sign too long,” he says. “So we have to close the store.”

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Last week, long-time customers and new visitors browsed in the small shop, tucked in the second floor of the mini-mall next to Tower Records, where the remaining Matryoshka dolls, beaded jewelry and decorated boxes are all 75 percent off.

“We come to Harvard Square and say, ‘Oh, let’s go look at Little Russia,’” says Ingrid Furlong, a Boston resident who has been crossing the river for years to shop at Little Russia.

She stood gazing at the jewelry alongside her friend Joan Witt of Newton, who described herself as “mad for amber.”

Customers describe the store as a holdover from the days before an influx of corporate chains diluted the charm of the Square.

“I’m always sad when another store in Harvard Square that’s not a chain bites the dust,” says Lily L. Brown ’04, who made her first visit to the store after hearing from a friend that everything was deeply discounted.

Schiller’s Harvard Square customers say they will miss the longtime store owner, and he has fond memories of his customers—including the Harvard students who used to drop in to practice Russian with him.

“Sometimes better, sometimes worse,” he says of the students’ Russian skills. “But we understand each other.”

Schiller has owned stores in Boston and Brookline, but Gross says her father always felt the customers in Cambridge were special—not necessarily wealthier than the clientele at his Newbury Street store, but more appreciative of art.

“It was a crowd closer to his heart,” she says.

A GROWING BUSINESS