“He’s been such a bad boy lately,” said a slight woman in gentle anguish upon reaching for her slim, black cat, who quickly ran for the door to greet customers.
“Sasha went exploring last night and I almost had a heart attack. I had neighbors looking for him,” she added fondly in her native Russian, stroking the lithe feline affectionately.
It appears that the very notion of curiosity runs rampant in “Flowers Symphony,” a small floral shop in Mill Basin, for it contains some of the most fascinating pieces of authentic memorabilia in the neighborhood, if not the entire borough.
The ambiance in her shop is that of a very much active museum. She has photographs, Soviet New Year ornaments, pottery, newspapers, magazines, toys, a record player and a phonograph player, all of which are authentic relics of particularly interesting times in history.
“This one was taken in 1919, of mechanics aiding in the war effort,” she said, gesturing to one of a series of photographs adorning her walls. All of them are original. She absolutely detests copies.
It would be equally simple to imagine Mill Basin-resident, Anna Tabachnikova, playing the soothing sounds of Rosemary Clooney on her stereo system as it would Nabokov’s books on tape, or the Amos Brothers on her aforementioned antique phonograph player.
A slender woman of petite stature and keen, intelligent disposition, Tabachnikova has been collecting these pieces for the last 19 years, since her first year in the United States.
She prefers pictures of groups of people, rather than singles, because “they are of a collection of strangers united by something – schools or military units, perhaps.”
Among them are those taken of the United States and Soviet militaries; a group of European children who she theorizes were rescued from Nazi-occupied territories during World War II, a German Women’s Kegel team in 1922, a de-segregated American school in 1955, a group of sailors, the founders of the organization that would help form the state of Israel and a group of American school children during the Great Depression.
“There is a very romantic moment associated with this picture of schoolgirls, taken when boys and girls were not yet integrated in schools,” she laughed amiably. “It was taken in St. Petersburg. When I received this photograph, with it came a silk handkerchief wrapped around the picture of a boy. Who that boy was, I don’t know and it’s doubtful that anyone does now.”
Tabachnikova still has that picture of the mysterious young boy, effectively immortalizing a clandestine, young love of yesteryear.
“I have another one of an insurance company that celebrated Christmas each year,” she continued, approaching a picture hanging on her wall. “I once had a group of girls come in to look at this photograph who told me that their grandmother used to work there. The next day, their grandmother came in on a wheelchair and recognized her former colleagues. She was close to 100 years old.”
She has had several offers to purchase her vast and unique collection, but had declined them all. Her interest is not even remotely financial, but entirely driven by her love of history and the human condition. She has ornaments of Soviet cosmonauts released the year Yuri Gagarin made his historic flight to space, which were sure to once adorn a tree across an ocean.
By her desk rests a framed copy of the original Daily News, depicting an announcement of World War II ending in Europe –which she says still gives her goose bumps – and behind it, one illustrating the Nuremberg trials. In her desk, she has aged issues of “Esquire” from the 1950s and those of an Iron-curtain era Soviet joke magazine called “Krokodil.”
“These are not just things or rags to be thrown away – here lie the stories of people’s lives,” Tabachnikova said wistfully. “This is all very interesting to me. Besides, it is entirely possible to study history through this.”
Photo by Olga Privman.