WASHINGTON -- The week in August that a Soviet coup paralyzed Moscow, Mike DeGraff and Dan Patton opened their first shop in Washington's Union Station selling Russian arts, crafts and souvenirs.
"You're out of business," Mr. Patton's brother-in-law warned them as tanks rolled through Moscow. Instead, the coup was a blessing in disguise, focusing U.S. attention and interest on all things Russian.
The little shop, Skazki N Mechti (Fairy Tales & Dreams), did so well that within weeks the partners were considering expansion. A month ago they opened a second store in the downtown National Place mall and will shift that store to larger quarters after Christmas. They also are thinking about branches in Los Angeles, Boca Raton and San Francisco.
Their merchandise is an eclectic assortment, ranging from jewelry and delicately hand-painted lacquer boxes to Russian books, wooden toys, T-shirts and Soviet army blouses. A large photograph of Mikhail Gorbachev adjoins a wall of framed Czarist treasury bonds and ruble notes. The most popular items are nested dolls, some of them political cartoons of world figures or Soviet leaders stretching back to Nikolai Lenin.
Mr. DeGraff already had two other retail shops in Union Station, which caters to thousands of Amtrak passengers and tourists who pass through the restored building near the Capitol every day.
He got the idea for Skazki N Mechti at a gift show where he ran into an American who had started a joint venture with a new Russian export company. Mr. Patton had studied Russian language and culture for four years at West Point.
"We order a lot more than we need from many sources, and whatever trickles in is always a surprise," Mr. Patton said. "It's like Christmas morning for us, because we're never sure what we're going to get."
Yelena Pisikina, a young Muscovite trained as an architect, came to the United States three months ago to live with her sister, happening on the shop, and a steady job, purely by chance.
The partners found Irina Pradhan, another young Muscovite, painting icons at a local Russian Orthodox church.
Before Christmas, Mr. DeGraff asked one of his clerks, a young Lithuanian woman, to dress for a special holiday display at Union Station, telling her encouragingly, "You'll be our Christmas angel." Instead of being pleased, the woman became despondent. Mr. Patton was summoned to find out, in Russian, what had gone wrong.
"She thought we wanted her to wear wings and a halo," Mr. Patton said.
This spring, the clerks will begin classes in English, while Mr. DeGraff takes up Russian.
Next month, the partners will travel to Moscow and Kiev to try to line up more reliable supply sources. So far, they have relied on an importer in Chicago, entrepreneurs in Moscow and even Russian emigres arriving in this country with family heirlooms. Freight transportation within Russia and its allied republics has been chaotic, and Western bargain hunters have swept the streets clean of some handicrafts.