Beads & Things owners only work for fun
The walls of Beads & Things are lined with tables and shelves covered with relics from the past and present. Music from all decades echoes through the rooms on the first floor of the house where the owners Jo Merkle and Phil Berry live part of the time.
“It’s great to have an apartment above the bead shop, especially yesterday when we were working so hard and so late just to clean up,” Merkle said.
When Merkle first started working with beads, she was there with her brownie troupe. Their mother was the leader and they sewed moccasins. She said that’s how her love of pearls began.
Now she crafts with Berry, her husband, at Beads & Things, an arts and crafts store that Merkle opened in 1990. She had $400 worth of inventory for sale when she and her husband started. The shop is now filled with tables and bookshelves full of beads, jewelry and other creations.
According to its website, Beads & Things is “the place for creativity” and “celebrates the world and your expression in it”. Merkle opened the shop outside of the home she shares with Berry at 8 N. Shafer St.
When Merkle told Berry of her desire to open a shop to make, collect, and sell beads, Berry had no intention of getting involved.
“In the beginning I didn’t want to work; I had no intention,” Berry said. “That’s Joey’s business, you know?”
He told Merkle, who he calls “Joey,” that he would help her lay the floor and assemble the store before it opened.
“Famous last words,” Berry joked.
Merkle moved to Athens in 1971 to begin her freshman year at Ohio University. Her time at OU didn’t last long, but she wanted to stay in Athens. In 1982 she bought a house which became the location of Beads & Things.
“I realized that if I wanted to stay in Athens, I had to create my own opportunities,” Merkle said. “I was kind of bored with the courses I was taking.”
Berry said between the two that they would like to call her a “45-year-old freshman.”
“She told her parents that it wasn’t in her best interest to continue funding her education,” Berry said. “She just wanted to work.”
Both are from Northeast Ohio; Merkle from the west side of Cleveland and Berry from further east. Berry didn’t go to college. Instead, he worked a variety of jobs, from construction and carpentry to bartending.
While visiting friends and relatives in Athens, Berry decided to stay. After moving, he and Merkle shared the same circle of friends. They got together in 1984, just six years before Merkle Beads & Things opened.
“I had a small bookkeeping business for a while, but it just wasn’t enough color,” Merkle said. “It wasn’t something I wanted to continue with because it wasn’t that much fun.”
Early in their relationship, Merkle and Berry traveled the country and began digging in Arkansas for things like quartz crystals and collecting beadwork from New Mexico. As the couple’s bead collection grew, so did Merkle’s desire to share her discoveries with those back home.
“When I opened the pearl shop, it was fun,” Merkle said. “That’s why it took us so long.”
Merkle and Berry have traveled all over the world including countries like Mexico, Thailand, Peru, China and Morocco.
“I just found it very interesting; just all the cultural nuances and where things come from and the different artisans and how things are made and what they’re made of,” Berry said. “This long, long, long history of trading just got more and more interesting to me.”
You have not been able to travel internationally since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, they traveled to Tucson, Arizona in January and February 2022 to collect pearls at a pearl and gem fair. Though Merkle doesn’t make as much beadwork as she used to, she said she collaborates with others.
“It’s a relationship with people around the world,” Merkle said. “It’s a way of life that I really appreciate because it’s just a tiny micro-business, and the people who are in this business, it’s a micro-business for them too.”
Merkle said the ability to travel before the pandemic made her discover the respectful nature of different cultures. One difference she and Berry have noticed between the United States and the countries they have visited is the varying respect for the elderly population.
“I think we’re all pretty much the same … we’re all human,” Merkle said. “But if I stay in this country for too long, I start to think that everyone thinks like an American … I think there’s a lot of fear in this country.”
Merkle and Berry don’t know when they’ll be traveling internationally again, but they appreciate the customers they’ve met in-store during the pandemic.
“I noticed this year that people seem a lot nicer,” said Merkle. “Not only in our store, especially among young people. I think people just seem a lot nicer in general.”
Berry said they always wanted to create a space for people to sit and learn how to create with beads. The ability to create, to share, has been their goal since they started the company. Merkle said it doesn’t take customers that long to learn jewelry making techniques these days.
“And they pick it up very quickly and they can do it,” Merkle said. “It’s great to see. That wasn’t always the case in the past.”
Merkle and Berry have worked together for over 30 years, but they haven’t grown weary of each other’s company. Merkle said they enjoy being together and traveling together, especially when traveling for the store.
“Phil and I work really well together,” Merkle said. “We are a good match philosophically.”
On the other end of the phone, Berry could be heard speaking to Merkle about the qualities of their compatibility.
“Phil just said, ‘Neither of us wanted a real job,’ which is true, so I like it,” Merkle said. “It’s easy. I’m grateful to be in a relationship where it is.”
They don’t know what the future holds for Beads & Things and what will happen when they can no longer run the store.
“I’m thinking about it, and I don’t know,” Merkle said. “We won’t really know until it happens. Then we can inform you.”