Recently, I did something that my earlier self would have considered unthinkable. I left the last of my stash of designer beads, worth more than one thousand dollars, for consignment at a local bead shop. I left them without an inventory sheet or suggested prices. I left them because, finally, I was done. Done working with beads, done trying to sell them. Done to the point of feeling weary in my bones.
I purchased my first beaded necklaces in 1987 on a trip to Hong Kong when I was a college sophomore. Two were cloisonné (one black, one blue), another pale green jade, another white ceramic with blue Chinese characters. I kept them, mostly unworn, for the next umpteen years. When the terrorist attacks of September 2001 left me quivering with anxiety, even though I was living in Boston, I reached for the necklaces. Touching the beads soothed me and brought me into the present moment. I decided to restring them and visited a local store to buy accent materials. That turned into a hobby, which morphed into an obsession (while at a consulting job, I flaunted corporate policy and shopped for materials online) and, eventually, into a profession of sorts. Beads entranced and delighted my eyes; arranging designs stimulated my brain; touching them brought me a measure of calm. But my Type A personality insisted on turning this hobby into a business. I wanted to believe the popular mantra, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” I had enough in the bank to bid adieu to my consulting job. My flabbergasted colleagues thought I was nuts, but I no longer wished to fake it and sell my soul. Nor could I: the extensive travel was taking its toll on my health and that of my cat.
I started small, setting up a table at a holiday craft fair in Somerville, MA. To my astonishment, my sales totaled $500. Was the money really following? Emboldened, I bought more beads and invested in real business cards. Eventually I bought a tent and tables and sold my work at festivals. While I had a passion for beads, I lacked the gene or the verve for selling. An introvert, I was not naturally designed to make small talk with customers for hours on end, coax or cajole them off the fence and into a purchase, or genuinely smile when well-heeled people visited my booth, chatted ad nauseum about themselves and, when they were done, bought items from my bargain bin or nothing at all.
Since jewelry was my self-expression, and each pair of earrings a brief, glittering sentence, bracelets a paragraph, and necklaces a short story, all composed from a growing inventory of carefully selected beads, divorcing my feelings from the act of selling was close to impossible. Unlike the Buddha, I had trouble embracing with compassion the gamut of behavior that appeared in the form of…humans. Craft shows, even lucrative ones, drained me. There were enough loyal and appreciative customers to make the effort worthwhile and keep me believing the “money would follow”, yet it never felt like enough. I fantasized about a booth buzzing with fans, of jewelry flying into the hands of many, of making a name for myself, of experiencing lasting fulfillment. My longing strung me along on a quest for more. Since I wasn’t about to use cheaper materials or lower prices, I tried other strategies to boost sales. I designed a large colorful banner to attract attention. I invested in yellow and purple and red jewelry boxes and orange shopping bags. I created signage to spark conversation and, hopefully, more purchases. I assiduously collected a mailing list and sent newsletters. Behind the scenes, I scoured bead shows, specialty shops and the Internet for materials that both resonated with me and were unique. I wanted my work to stand out, to speak to people, to say something that no beaded jewelry had ever expressed before.
When women told me they hadn’t found jewelry they’d be willing to wear until they saw mine, I quietly triumphed. Ditto for when those rare customers unabashedly spent hundreds of dollars, simply out of love and appreciation. Their purchases gave me the funds and the confidence to expand my inventory, creating a virtuous cycle. At times, when I imagined a new design scheme would be a huge hit, I purchased tons of certain beads. When wholesalers offered better prices for bulk purchases, I bought in quantity. The result was many beads. Many, many beads that fell to the floor, rolled into cracks in the floorboards or, at the end of a workday, ended up in my shoes.
A few years into this adventure, I moved them and myself into a small studio and retail space. Tired of schlepping everything from show to show, like a modern day peddler, I sent two dozen press packets for a grand opening the weekend after Thanksgiving. Perhaps if a newspaper ran the story, people would come to me and more money would follow. Despite my diligence in preparing, printing and mailing the packets, I failed to follow up with phone calls or e-mails. It was part laziness, part naive desire to let the universe decide, part discomfort with tooting my own horn, and part pessimism that it wouldn’t work, so why bother? But the universe answered in the form of an article, complete with a huge image of one of my bracelets, featured on the cover of a popular Boston Globe insert. The night before the opening I attended my high school reunion; I wasn’t eager to show up, but friends had nudged me to go. I stayed longer than expected, straining to talk over the crazy loud DJ who probably thought we were all still 18.
When I woke the next morning, I had no voice. Moreover, I had not planned to have an assistant. As I drove to my shop, I wondered: Would my jewelry speak for me now? Was this a retail disaster or a spiritual message that jewelry design was not my true voice?
For the next two days I whispered, barely, to the customers parading into my shop. They plucked necklaces and bracelets from displays, held earrings up alongside their faces. They indulged my wildest retail fantasies as they cheerfully handed over their credit cards, checks and cash. The experience gave me a taste of popularity that, in life, had eluded me. But perhaps because I was essentially mute, scribbling answers to questions on scraps of paper and, when someone called for directions, handing the phone to a studio visitor, it was as if I were a bystander at someone else’s opening, appreciating the good energy but not fully receiving it. That weekend, sales skyrocketed, and continued through Christmas. Briefly, I experienced being a local celebrity. And, after the adrenaline rush ended, I felt no different than before. Whatever longing I had hoped would be permanently soothed by such recognition was still there.
When I closed the business a few years later before moving to Colorado, I had many, many beads. Along with most of my finished jewelry, I put many, but not my favorites, up for sale. Watching people purchase the beads surfaced my insecurities. I feared that designers, knowing I was leaving town, would reproduce my work if I sold them my hard-won materials. Like a toddler clutching a teddy bear, I held onto those special beads. The Buddha warned that attachment leads to suffering; it also leads to transporting dozens of pounds of small round and cylindrical objects across the country. While I used some in mosaic art, the vast majority sat around in boxes, out of sight.
In recent years, I’ve periodically attempted to sell the beads, in person and online, to free up space and recover my investment; both are tedious enterprises. During those times, I hesitated to approach a store, fearing I’d lose too much. In my latest attempt, I spent hours sorting my collection into tiny baggies, which I priced below cost simply to move them. When an older gentleman came to purchase a few, he asked why I was selling them. I shared my saga.
“Why don’t you just sell them to Nomad?” he said, referring to a local bead shop. I had been inside once and found it too cluttered. Because of that first impression, and a stubborn belief that I had to liquidate the inventory myself, I hadn’t contacted the store.
He was right, of course. By then, I was done, throw-my-hands-up-in-the-air done. I called Nomad. The co-owner, Catherine, told me she’d love to help, but that she could only consign them. That meant depositing my stash and receiving zero cash, at first. But perhaps it was again time to trust the universe. A few days later I crossed their threshold with my bin of beads. I sat at a crowded table with a very pleasant, down to earth white haired lady, unadorned with makeup or flashy jewelry, a refreshing change from the bead divas I’d met at East Coast shows. I walked her through my collection, expecting that she’d choose some and reject others.
Catherine was willing to take all of them. She said I could price the beads, or let the store do it. She explained that many of her customers buy one or two beads at a time and she’d sort them accordingly. For some, I might receive less than what I paid; for others, more. Overall, she said, it might even out. As we spoke, the store’s founder, Jake, whose spiky turquoise and coral neckpiece matched his extensive body art, quietly sorted inventory, placing objects in plastic bags, sealing them, and affixing a sticker. Glancing around the jam packed shop, I could barely begin to comprehend the time and labor required to sort, count, repackage and price beads that ranged from a few cents to a few hundred dollars. In the clutter, I now saw thoroughness, dedication and a willingness to accept whatever beads people like me brought through the door. Nomad was one of few bead shops to thrive in the recession, outlasting its competitors. It hit me that, unlike this shop, I had no clue how to sell beads generally, or in Boulder, Colorado in particular. Beads are a unique business, and no two markets are alike. Perhaps I’d enjoy being surprised periodically with a consignment payment.
“You can price them,” I said, which disturbed my inner accountant, who still recalls how much I paid for certain materials. It added: “Do you want me to make a list of what I’ve brought in?”
“No,” she said. “That will just drive both of us crazy.”
“You’re right,” I said, shocking my meticulous self. I left the beads on the table and scrawled my name on the consignment form. Walking to my car, I noticed a bounce in my step. As I backed out of the space I glanced in the rear view mirror. My eyes shown a bit more brightly, my face looked younger. I wondered why it had taken so long to set myself free.