New owner, new design embrace traditions at The Little Mahatma

Dan Schwandner sees himself as a steward as much as a storeowner. 

He bought The Little Mahatma from its founder Gloria McConnaghy in January, determined to keep bringing the beauty of far-off lands and cultures to the now 24-year-old Cincinnati shop.

“She was a bit of an urban pioneer,” Schwandner says of the 76-year-old McConnaghy, a Peace Corps alum and public health nurse who originally crammed a world full of jewelry and artifacts into a 10-foot-by-10-foot space in the Carew Tower Arcade.

It didn’t surprise him when, five years ago, McConnaghy joined an intrepid group of retailers in Over the Rhine on Vine Street, setting up shop in the Gateway Quarter ahead of mainstream developers. Vine Street offered an opportunity for growth and exposure to a new generation of customers.

“She came here knowing it was an area under development,” Schwandner says. “That didn’t deter her at all. The location was ideal. It had all the right ingredients; it just took a little time to develop.”

It also took a little time for McConnaghy to warm to Schwandner’s offers to buy the shop. As the 59-year-old made a daily commute from Clifton to Dayton for his insurance job, he saw The Little Mahatma as the perfect place to do what he’d wanted to for years—own and operate his own store.

His partner first pitched the idea to McConnaghy years ago. She declined. He asked again. She declined again. And then late last year, they began to talk about a sale. 

Schwandner shocked his employer in Dayton by leaving his job just a few years shy of retirement to make a new start in a different field. And so far, he couldn’t be happier.

“It was a big leap,” he says. “But everything fell into place.”

His respect for McConnaghy’s years of collecting and selling shows in the crowded shelves and rows of Asian elephant sculptures, in the cases of silver jewelry and baskets of incense. 

McConnaghy remains a consultant and a regular at the shop, which she watched evolve during renovations this summer. But new lighting fixtures from neighboring Switch Lighting & Design, a new floor and new stenciling on the back wall and paint throughout are surface signals of change at The Little Mahatma.  

“He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty,” she says of Schwandner. “I love it.”

Behind the counter, Schwandner seems in his element, smiling and greeting customers, pulling favorite items from cabinets and cases, explaining their origins and the stories of their journeys to Cincinnati. 

He says the Vine Street location adds out-of-town guests strolling the streets while at conventions and diners waiting for tables at nearby restaurants as well as loyal return shoppers like Lisa McFadden.

“I always get compliments on the jewelry,” says McFadden, 47, of St. Bernard. She became a Carew Tower Arcade customer and now makes regular trips to the Vine Street shop with her daughter Courtney, 27. “I got drawn in there [Carew Tower Arcade] and that was the end.”

Schwandner talks about adding men’s jewelry and other new items to the inventory, about making trips of his own to meet buyers, always with a nod to the reputation built by McConnaghy, who opened the Carew Tower Arcade location when she was 52 years old.

“I’m not starting a business as much as I’m continuing a really good business,” he says. “We are very happy with what we have here.”

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