I’ve said many times that my job at the bead store was the best one ever. I loved being around all those beautiful beads, talking to beaders, loved having the opportunity to work on projects in my down time, taking classes… teaching classes. I can’t think of anything about the job I didn’t like except the fact that it ended when the store closed.
One of the things I enjoyed most were the bead gypsies. For anyone who has never heard the term (I hadn’t) a bead gypsy is someone who travels around the world, buying up beads and other crafted items directly from the people who have made them. Then they bring them to shops to sell. Having a good relationship with a number of them always ensured that we had a lot of unique items.
They’d typically show up out of the blue, but Gwen and Donna would always make time to sit down with them and have a visit over a cup of tea before they got down to business. That was part of the business, really, the human contact. I always thought it was one of the reasons why these people did what they did. They met people all around the world, and got to know them and their cultures. They carried news of what was going on in the world, and in fact we heard how dangerous Afghanistan was becoming back in the early 90s from a pair bead gypsies who had traveled in that area for many years. They said that the trip they just finished would probably be their last until things cooled down. And then they laid out their wares: bracelets, rings, necklaces, beads made of lapis and carnelian. Wonderful things. They gave us fantastic prices, and were willing to sell directly to each of us for the same price which is how I snagged the three silver rings above. The blue stones are lapis, the orange, carnelian, and the bead in the center ring is what we called a “Mecca” bead. It’s red glass with a crescent and stars imprinted on its face. I paid $5 each.
The brass ring above, so big that it fits comfortably on my thumb, came from a pair of Nigerian bead gypsies, who would show up about once a year with three or four huge plastic bins filled with merchandise. They would lay out piles of trade beads: millefiori, vaseline beads, chevrons, vegetable amber, seeds, nuts, brass, bone, horn, clay and stone. They brought Coptic crosses, statues, rings for the fingers, nose and ears, and stacks of mudcloth. I even have a finger knife — wicked sharp — that I bought from them on their last trip, but I kick myself that I never bought a piece of the mudcloth. As expensive as it seemed at the time, it was a bargain compared to what it’s being sold for now.
It was always like Christmas when they came calling. A strange and exotic Christmas to be sure, but always filled with a sense of excitement and wonder. Because as the boxes and bundles were opened, and the wares presented, we were seeing not just rings and beads, but cultures, and the people who created all of it. It gave me a sense of how connected an artisans are to their environment, how much they owe to it and it to them. Sometimes I wished we could convey that to the people who bought those things from us, but increasing disconnection from the source of an item brings a similar disconnection from its greater meaning.
Sometimes I’ll find myself looking up at the buildings here in Chicago, mostly the older ones, and noticing the embellishments, the grace notes which are no longer features of architecture, dismissed as too busy, or not modern enough. And I find myself wondering if there even are people who could create those architectural flourishes anymore. I remember Joey telling me that one of the reasons why he got such a good gig on a building site is that he was the only man on the crew who knew how to build a mansard roof, and I thought, along with “Good on yez, Joey,” that it was a sad commentary on how quickly a culture can disconnect from an art form when that form has lost its value to a society.
I think about workers in places like Asia and Africa, grinding out cheap, machine-made knock-offs of their traditional crafts, and thinking that it’s not worth bothering to learn those traditions because they don’t pay anymore. It’s sad and perhaps inevitable. But then I see artisans in all countries who have chosen to keep up old traditions, and I realize that this is also part of the role of the true artist/artisan. They don’t just create the new, they practice the old as well, and integrate the two when they can. They reconnect.
I miss the bead gypsies, miss their stories and their wares. I miss that job. But I’m beginning to feel as if I have an even more important one now. Reconnecting.