BRATTLEBORO—Beadniks, the Main Street storefront selling beads, beaded jewelry, and supplies to make it — in addition to toys, candy, gifts, gemstones, and a variety of other items — celebrated 25 years of business in October.
But the shop’s history is older than that.
Beadniks’ owner Brian Robertshaw started the business — mostly, as a store selling just beads — in Martha’s Vineyard three years before moving it to Brattleboro.
Robertshaw’s interest in beads, and his talent at selling them, goes back even further. Robertshaw, who turned 50 last December, started collecting beads 40 years ago.
One of his older brothers collected coins, and Robertshaw followed suit. He got really into it, he said, and was able to find American coins from the late 1700s. But that was as far back as he got. Robertshaw could find no older domestic coins.
“I went to the coin collector guy down the street and asked him, ‘What happened? Why are there no older coins?’” Robertshaw said.
The coin collector gave him a history lesson and answered his currency query: The Native Americans traded beads, not coins.
Finding this fascinating, Robertshaw began collecting beads. It was easy in the late-1960s.
“My older siblings had hippie beads,” he said, “and I just kept collecting.”
To the Vineyard
Fast-forward to the year that the Worcester native graduated from college.
“I fell in love with a girl at school who was from Martha’s Vineyard. I followed her there and was a beach bum for the summer,” he said.
When he wasn’t working at the local cafe, selling coffee, “I sat on the beach and returned to my old hobby from when I was 10 years old,” Robertshaw said.
He made beaded bracelets to sell on the beach “for money to buy dinner.”
“I was really into nature and Native American life, and I studied ‘primitive’ skills. I found beautiful beaded stuff in museums, but I couldn’t collect that, so I made it myself,” Robertshaw said. “I started by making museum replicas. It was really fruitful in the 1980s, during the ‘native resurgence,’ and I sold a lot of pieces on Martha’s Vineyard.”
Then the recession of the early 1990s hit, and people with money weren’t spending it on art. At one of his studio sales, a patron saw Robertshaw’s tackle box full of beads and asked to buy just one of them.
“The light bulb in my head went off. Bing!” said Robertshaw, who realized, “I don’t have to make stuff. I can sell beads.”
So, he turned his art studio into a small bead store. “It turned from three tackle boxes to three rooms in a Victorian house,” he said.
But, three years later, at age 25, “I felt antsy, I wanted to homestead, have kids, but buying property was cost-prohibitive in Martha’s Vineyard,” he said.
’This cool place called Brattleboro’
Robertshaw looked to Western Massachusetts, and was one day away from signing a lease on a storefront in Amherst when a friend stopped by and told him about “this cool place called Brattleboro where there’s a shop for rent on Main Street."
That friend, Adam Gebb, picked Robertshaw up from the bus station, “and I signed a lease the next day.”
Gebb’s business was Cultural Intrigue, which was then a retail and wholesale outfit selling fabric and handicrafts from around the world.
Gebb and Robertshaw split the storefront, and took classes on retail management, merchandising, and “how to be a boss,” Robertshaw said. Eventually, Gebb wanted to focus on the wholesale side of business, and Robertshaw focused on retail and beads.
Soon after Robertshaw began building his new business, he also began teaching full-time at Kindle Farm, the independent school in Newfane serving students with a variety of emotional, behavioral, neurological, and learning needs. Nine years later, his store manager announced she was pregnant and wanted to be a full-time mom.
“I advertised for a full-time manager, and realized I was paying $8,000 more per year for that position than what I was making as a teacher,” Robertshaw said.
Then came an omen.
“The barn where I had my classroom was burned to the ground. I took it as a sign,” said Robertshaw, who added that after nearly a decade, “I was ready for a change. I wanted to be my own boss again.”
This allowed his business to become a family affair. Robertshaw’s children, wife, and sister-in-law began helping out at the shop. “My three daughters helped pick out toys and candy from the catalogues for us to sell,” Robertshaw said.
About five years ago, Robertshaw had what he calls “an existential crisis.”
“I thought, ‘Why beads? Why me?’ and I asked myself if there was any meaning beyond turning a buck,” he said.
His decision: get back to his roots. Robertshaw began studying the history of beads, and as he did, “I’ve invited all that history stuff into my life.” Once word got out, visitors began bringing him “a lot of old beads,” he said. “It’s a weird disease,” he added.
Robertshaw turned part of the downstairs beneath Beadniks’ retail shop into “The Collection: A Museum of Beads and Cultural Artifacts.” Beyond a locked door is a small room filled with vitrines and other displays of beads, beaded items, and other rare relics from around the world, including a completely beaded throne.
“My mission is to preserve it,” he said, “and share the history of the world."
“People think of beads as, ‘Oh, that’s a nice bracelet. It goes with your shirt,’ but it’s so much more” than fashion, Robertshaw said.
Beads represent currency, spirituality, and yes, ornament. While researching beads, one can learn about the world: geography, social and economic classes, rituals, and which natural resources were available.
Robertshaw pointed out some beads were used as food — when a hunter came back from the field with no food, beads around their neck, made of shells or seeds, could provide some minerals and fiber.
The museum is open to private viewers, collectors, researchers, and schools by appointment and sometimes during Gallery Walk.
To give curious viewers a glimpse of his collection while also keeping the beads safe, Robertshaw started a “bead-a-day” project on Instagram (www.instagram.com/beadniks). Every day he posts a close-up photo — a single bead, a necklace, a bracelet — with notes on its provenance, approximate age, materials used, and other notable facts.
So, after 25 years of running a store on Main Street — while many other merchants have come and gone — how does Robertshaw explain his success?
Beadniks stayed open when it seemed, especially in the mid-1990s, like every second storefront on Main Street was closed, Robertshaw pointed out.
“My number-one rule always was, it’s got to be fun,” Robertshaw said. “And, we need to be respectful of people in here. There are no politics in here. We’ve got a train, we have fun music playing. It’s a place to smile and forget about things for awhile."
Diversifying his stock also helped.
“We expanded into toys, candy, home decor, and cards. It’s kid-friendly,” he said.
It’s also affordable.
“Being able to sell stuff for a dime has kept us open,” Robertshaw noted.
“I don’t know where else this shop could work other than in Brattleboro,” he said. But, that relationship goes both ways. “We’ve helped define Brattleboro a bit as being quirky,” said Robertshaw.
It hasn’t always been easy, though, and Robertshaw characterized the last five years as “the toughest."
“I just hold my breath and say, ’We’ve been here before,’ and I hope things will get better,” he said.
Robertshaw gave a variety of reasons for why business has been so hard: the recession, the closing of Vermont Yankee, and online retailers.
“Amazon[.com] plays into the retail gut-punches” Beadniks and other stores have experienced, he said. “It’s sad to see these little shops that cater to people close,” he said.
But, he said, “I know a lot of people who love Brattleboro who don’t shop here. Where are they shopping? Maybe they don’t like beads. But we’re all struggling here."
“I think everybody’s trying to be hopeful and figure out the next quirky thing to keep us all open,” Robertshaw said.