The walls of Beads & Things are lined with tables and shelves that are covered with relics of the past and present. Music from all decades courses through the rooms on the first floor of the house, where owners Jo Merkle and Phil Berry live part-time.
“It’s terrific having an apartment above the bead store, especially yesterday when we worked so hard and so late just cleaning up,” Merkle said.
The first time Merkle started working with beads, she was with her Brownie troop. Her mother was the leader, and they were beading moccasins. She said that is when her love of beads started.
Now, she beads with Berry, her husband, at Beads & Things, an arts and crafts shop that Merkle opened in 1990. She had $400 worth of inventory to sell when she and her husband first 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 out of the house she shares with Berry on 8 N. Shafer St.
When Merkle told Berry about her desire to open a shop to create, gather and sell beads, Berry didn’t plan on getting involved.
“At first, I wasn’t going to work; I didn’t have any intention,” Berry said. “This is Joey’s thing, you know?”
He told Merkle, who he calls “Joey,” that he would help her put down the floor and get the shop together before it was opened.
“Famous last words,” Berry joked.
Merkle moved to Athens in 1971 to start her freshman year at Ohio University. Her time at OU didn’t last long, but she wanted to stay in Athens. She bought a house in 1982 which turned into the location for Beads & Things.
“I realized if I wanted to stay in Athens, I would have to create my own opportunities,” Merkle said. “I was kind of bored with the courses I was taking.”
Berry said between the two of them, they like to call her a “45-year-freshman.”
“She told her parents that it was not in their 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.
It was when Berry was visiting friends and relatives in Athens that he decided to stay. After he moved, he and Merkle shared the same circle of friends. They got together in 1984, just six years before Merkle opened Beads & Things.
“I had a small bookkeeping business for a while, but it just wasn’t enough color,” Merkle said. “It was not something I was going to go forward with because it wasn’t so much fun.”
Merkle and Berry traveled across the country early in their relationship and started digging for things like quartz crystals in Arkansas and collecting beadwork from New Mexico. As the couple’s collection of beads grew, Merkle’s desire to share her discoveries with people back home grew with it.
“When I opened the bead store, it was fun,” Merkle said. “That’s why it’s lasted so long for us.”
Merkle and Berry have traveled all over the world, including to countries like Mexico, Thailand, Peru, China and Morocco.
“I just found it really interesting; just all of the cultural nuances and where stuff comes from and the different craftspeople and how things are made and what they’re made out of,” Berry said. “This long, long, long history of trade just became more and more interesting to me.”
They have not been able to travel internationally since the COVID-19 pandemic started. However, they have traveled out to Tucson, Arizona in January and February of 2022 to gather beads at an artisan bead and gem show. Although Merkle doesn’t create as much beadwork as she used to, she said she co-creates with others.
“It’s a relationship with people all over the world,” Merkle said. “It’s a way of life that I really appreciate because it’s just a teeny, tiny microbusiness and people that are in this business, it’s microbusiness for them, too.”
Merkle said the ability to travel before the pandemic let 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 disparity of respect for the elder populations.
“I think we’re all pretty much the same … we’re all people,” Merkle said. “But if I stay in this country for too long, I start thinking everybody thinks like an American… I guess there’s a lot of fear in this country.”
Merkle and Berry don’t know when they will travel internationally again, but they have appreciated the customers they have met at the shop throughout the pandemic.
“I have noticed this year that people seem a lot nicer,” Merkle said. “It’s not just in our store, and especially young people. I think people in general just seem a lot nicer.”
Berry said they have always wanted to create a space for people to sit and learn how to create with beads. Sharing the ability to make something has been both of their goals since they started the business. Merkle said it doesn’t take customers as long to learn the techniques for jewelry making these days.
“And they pick it up really fast and they can do it,“ Merkle said. "That’s great to see. It’s not always that way in the past.”
Merkle and Berry have been working together for over 30 years, but they have not grown tired of each other’s company. Merkle said they enjoy being together and traveling together, especially when they’re traveling for the shop.
“Phil and I work really well together,” Merkle said. “We’re philosophically suited for each other.”
Berry could be heard on the other end of the phone talking to Merkle about the qualities of their compatibility.
“Phil just said, ‘Neither one 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 like that.”
They don’t know what the future holds for Beads & Things and what will happen once they can’t take care of the shop.
“I do think about that, and I don’t know,” Merkle said. “We won’t really know until it happens. Then, we can let you know.”