Two tourists wandered along a working class street in Cuzco, Peru, aided only by a map and the occasional stranger’s help. What had started as a visit to a museum for Jo Merkle and Phil Berry of Athens, Ohio, turned into an impromptu adventure. The bounty they were after: beads. The museum had held a few they had liked, and the display included the artist’s name and address. So Merkle copied them down. Their wandering brought them away from the tourist part of Mexico, but they found the artist’s workshop. Some of those beads still lie in their Athens store.
The little red house lingers behind the cracking sidewalk of North Shafer Street, a pink sign proclaiming it: Beads & Things. Inside, crystals hang from window sills, casting rainbows across the wooden floor. A portrait of beads, a gift from past employees, hangs on a window toward the back of the shop. Small baskets of gemstones line the front wall, and glass jars hold handfuls of feathers from exotic birds.
Beads color the rest of the room, adorning shelf and tables in small jars and hanging from windows in long strands. The vibrant colors brighten the first floor of the house while statues, carvings and large gems adorn the staircase that leads up to Merkle and Berry’s upstairs apartment. The couple lives here when they aren’t at their cabin outside of town. When they aren’t in Athens, they’re usually traveling around the world in search of new people to meet and things to sell.
For Merkle, her quest for beads has been a lifelong affair. Her mother introduced her to the hobby as a child; by the third grade, she had a collection. By the fourth grade, she had a business.
“I kind of had some manufacturing problems, though,” Merkle says, Berry laughing as he listens. Her little start-up selling handmade badges didn’t last long, but Beads & Things has shared its treasures with Athens since 1990, despite initial struggles — apart from the house and Merkle’s bead collection, the couple had little money.
“I told her that I would help her, kind of do some carpentry and help her get things, but I wasn’t going to work here.” Berry says. A tall man with spectacles and silver hair that matches his wife’s, Berry doesn’t seem the type to be making beads, if there is one.
“Famous last words,” Merkle says with a smirk.
She was correct. Within two months, Berry was making jewelry. Within six, he was working full-time.
Now in her 26th year as store owner, Merkle doesn’t have just a collection of beads, but also a collection of knowledge. The shop is a library of different cultures, beads instead of books. Berry picks up a strand of tradewind beads, which he estimates are from the 1500s.
Because makers used the same materials and the same practices for centuries, it’s often difficult to determine the time of manufacturing. Even so, beads from archeologist sites can help to “to judge the advancement of a culture technologically or their connections between other places, other cultures, other people,” according to Berry.
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“Maybe it’s the way that the different cultures express their connection to something deeper…all cultures have that. They express themselves somehow or another,” Berry says.
These beads Merkle and Berry collect hold those expressions down to their very name.
“The word ‘bead’ means ‘to pray’ in Anglo-Saxon, so these are all little prayers. Little pieces of art,” Merkle says, the reason being that prayer beads were the first type the common people could afford.
As precious as their treasures and the knowledge they impart are, it’s the people they meet and make connections with, locally and around the world, who Merkle and Berry value most. Through their quest for beads, they observe human nature across the world.
“I mean, 99.999 percent of the people on this planet are really great. We hear the percentage of happenings that aren’t so great,” Merkle says genuinely as she sits at a table across from her husband, a table of colorful beads in small glass bowls between them.
Together, they recount a particular striking example. On a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, the couple encountered a teacher’s rally that tangled with the local law enforcement. Before they were pulled into a nearby office building, Berry remembers seeing pots along the street, waiting to be planted. When they emerged after the rally, “those plants were still there, waiting to be planted.”
“Nobody hurt the plants. There were some stones thrown and a building that got messed up, but nobody hurt the plants. I thought that was really human,” Merkle adds.
Berry jokes that no sooner than the couple would travel somewhere, that country would experience some form of “political disturbance.” While they had been in Thailand during March of 2010, there had been some demonstrations by red shirts, or supporters of a political pressure group called The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship.
“Oh, well that was a long time ago,” Merkle says dismissively, the two chuckling.
“My sister started to say, ‘What are you really doing in these countries?’” Berry adds.
In 2011, the political rifts actually aided the couple in their travel. An October trip to Beijing brought wonder, and November brought an opportunity. According to Berry, the Chinese government changed rules regarding travel to Tibet without giving much reason for doing so.
The new regulations China allowed tour groups to visit Tibet with a guide, but the couple discovered an additional loophole. Merkle and Berry were able to classify as their own tour group, rather than traveling in a larger group. They stayed in Tibet for four or five days, touring with their guide.
“He didn’t show us anything at first, but by the time we left, it was fairly obvious to us that he wasn’t happy with the Chinese presence being the level that it was.” Berry said.
If the Tibetan tour guide was subtle, the Chinese military presence was anything but. Chinese police stood on the roofs, watching the citizens — and the foreigners — below.
The couple usually stayed out late at night, exploring before returning to their room on the highest floor. A few seconds after they shut their door, they’d hear footsteps sounded overhead on the roof. Military boots descended down stairs, then down the hall.
They tried the door. Locked.
“It was to keep us in so we wouldn’t be instigators to some type of problem,” Merkle said, certain that was the reason rather than the couple’s safety. According to the two, it was common practice at the “foreigner hotels” to lock the guests in their rooms at night.
“You would see the military on the roofs, the police on the roof, you’d see them. But I didn’t realize ‘well, they’re on our roof too,” said Merkle.
After returning to Beijing, the government changed the rules on traveling to Tibet yet again.
“You had to either be in a bigger group, and not longer after that they changed it that you had to be of the same nationality,” said Berry.
Their travels brought them to Ephesus, Turkey; Cusco, Peru; Morocco, Tasco, Kansas and Oaxaca, Mexico; Tucson, Arizona; Beijing, China and others. In the coming year, the couple plan on traveling to Guatemala. One adventure leads to another. But the more they travel, the world doesn’t get smaller. It grows.
“The world keeps expanding. And I think that’s a really neat thing,” Berry says.
And where there are more places, there are more cultures. And where there are more cultures, there are more beads to record their humanity.