The walls of Beads & Things are lined with tables and shelves covered in relics from past and present. Music from all decades runs through the first-floor rooms of the house, where owners Jo Merkle and Phil Berry live part-time.
“It’s great to have an apartment above the pearl shop, especially yesterday when we worked so hard and so late to clean up,” Merkle said.
The first time Merkle started working with beads was with her Brownie troupe. Her mother was the boss and they were beading moccasins. She said that’s when her love of pearls began.
Now she is beading with Berry, her husband, at Beads & Things, an arts and crafts store that Merkle opened in 1990. She had $400 worth of inventory to sell when she and her husband started. The shop is now filled with tables and shelves 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 store in the home she shares with Berry at 8 N. Shafer St.
When Merkle told Berry of her desire to open a shop to create, collect, and sell beads, Berry had no intention of getting involved.
“At first, I wasn’t going to work; I had no intentions,” Berry said. “That’s Joey’s thing, you know?”
He told Merkle, whom he calls “Joey,” that he would help him lay the floor and get the store together before it opened.
“Famous last words,” Berry joked.
Merkle moved to Athens in 1971 to begin his freshman year at Ohio University. Her stay at OU didn’t last long, but she wanted to stay in Athens. She bought a house in 1982 which became the filming location for Beads & Things.
“I realized that if I wanted to stay in Athens, I would have to create my own opportunities,” Merkle said. “I was a bit bored with the classes I was taking.”
Berry said that between the two of them, they like to call her a “45-year-old freshman.”
“She told her parents that it was not in their best interests to continue funding her education,” Berry said. “She just wanted to work.”
Both are from northeast Ohio; Merkle on the west side of Cleveland and Berry from further east. Berry didn’t go to college. Instead, he held various jobs ranging from construction and carpentry to bartending.
It was when Berry was visiting friends and relatives in Athens that he decided to stay. After moving, he and Merkle shared the same circle of friends. They reunited in 1984, just six years before Merkle opened Beads & Things.
“I had a small accounting business for a while, but it just wasn’t enough color,” Merkle said. “It wasn’t something I was going to go ahead with because it wasn’t so much fun.”
Merkle and Berry traveled across the country early in their relationship and began looking for things like quartz crystals in Arkansas and collecting pearls from New Mexico. As the couple’s bead collection grew, Merkle’s desire to share her findings with people back home grew with her.
“When I opened the pearl store, it was fun,” Merkle said. “That’s why it took so long for us.”
Merkle and Berry have traveled all over the world, including countries like Mexico, Thailand, Peru, China and Morocco.
“I just found it really 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 trade has become more and more interesting to me.”
They have not been able to travel overseas since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, they traveled to Tucson, Arizona in January and February 2022 to collect beads at a bead and gemstone craft show. Although Merkle doesn’t create as many pearls 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 enjoy because it’s just a very small micro business and the people who work in this business, it’s also a micro business for them.”
Merkle said the ability to travel before the pandemic allowed her to experience 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 in respect for older populations.
“I think we’re all pretty much the same…we’re all people,” Merkle said. “But if I stay in this country too long, I start to think that everyone thinks like an American…I guess there’s a lot of fear in this country.”
Merkle and Berry aren’t sure when they’ll be traveling overseas again, but they’ve appreciated the customers they’ve met at the store throughout the pandemic.
“I’ve 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 seem a lot nicer.
Berry said they always wanted to create a space where people could sit and learn how to create with beads. Sharing the ability to do something has been their two goals since they started the business. Merkle said it doesn’t take customers that long to learn jewelry-making techniques these days.
“And they get it back very quickly and they can do it,” Merkle said. “It’s great to see. It’s not always been the case in the past.”
Merkle and Berry have worked together for over 30 years, but they never tire of each other’s company. Merkle said they love being together and traveling together, especially when traveling for the store.
“Phil and I work really well together,” Merkle said. “We are philosophically suited to each other.”
Berry could be heard on the other end of the line talking to Merkle about the qualities of their compatibility.
“Phil just said, ‘None of us wanted a real job,’ which is true, so I like that,” Merkle said. “It’s easy. I’m grateful to be in a relationship where it’s like that.
They don’t know what the future holds for Beads & Things and what will happen once they can no longer run the shop.
“I think about it, and I don’t know,” Merkle said. “We won’t really know until it happens. Then we can let you know.