Saturday, August 23, 2014

Existential Bead Store Questions

Acrylic Craft Beads

What makes a perfect bead store? The answer is certainly different for every beader, as we each have different needs and favorites depending on our style and the type of beading that we do. And just as there are many types of beaders, there are many kinds of bead stores, too. Naturally, some of them will be better than others.

The city where I live has only two craft stores - one of them a big box chain - and no dedicated bead stores. This means that I have to shop for supplies online, which certainly provides a lot of choice, but not necessarily a lot of inspiration. The ability to browse, touch, and compare beads in person is invaluable.

Two years ago I was able to visit bead stores in a nearby city, and I was a little surprised by what I found. One shop had a large selection of very basic beads from China, in a variety of materials. They also had lots of Czech seed beads, some Japanese seed beads, and a few unique odds and ends that were fun to browse. The second store was just a little bit smaller, but their selection was limited mostly to the generic Chinese imports - basic lampwork, metal charms, gemstones, and some bone.

I didn’t think much about the selection that I found in these two stores until I made another trip this summer, and happened upon another tiny bead shop. I was really excited to browse, and perhaps find some unique focals and accents, plus top up some of my favorite seed bead colors. The selection that I found was confusing, to say the least. It would not be an exaggeration to say that it was almost identical to the second, smaller bead store that I visited on my last trip. It seemed as if the stores were both stocked from a kit, rather than selected by hand.

I didn’t end up buying even a single bead - only a few met my picky criteria, and they weren’t exciting enough to make it worthwhile. I recognized a few of my favorite Czech seed bead colors, but when I looked for the ones I needed, I found that they looked generic up close. And without labels, I couldn’t be sure that they were of good quality. I was reluctant to ask because I had already inquired about 125 yard spools of Fireline - a curt “No” was the only answer I received. I couldn’t help but compare this store to the bigger one from my last trip. There, when I asked if they carried tagua, a polite “No” turned into a ten minute chat about natural beads.

When I left the store I was disappointed and confused. I also found myself feeling rather annoyed. Even if I wasn’t so selective with the materials that I use, there weren’t very many offerings in the shop that would meet the standards of a seasoned beader. I thought about it for the rest of the day, and found myself wondering just what the purpose of a bead store like this could be.

Bead Store Finds

Whatever our origins in beading, it’s inevitable that we will be drawn to good quality materials. If we start out stringing cute plastic beads, it’s only natural to learn from our bead peers and beading books about artisan lampwork, Swarovski crystals, and good quality semiprecious stones. If we start out beadweaving with a premade palette of Indian seed beads from the dollar store, eventually we’ll learn about Preciosa, Toho, and Delicas, and want to try them out.

Considering the natural progression of a beader’s repertoire, is it likely that a store carrying beads, but none of the things that serious beaders want, is run by someone that doesn’t bead themselves? Why would anyone do that? The question that really made me ponder and puzzle was this: Who is supporting these stores, and what are they doing with the beads they buy? And if the customers eventually upgrade to higher quality materials, doesn’t that mean that the store will lose their business? If not for each new generation of crafters cutting their teeth on the cheap stuff, these bead stores would be totally unsustainable.

Although it was several weeks ago, I still feel a bit steamed whenever I think about these two little bead shops with their uninspired and uninspiring selection. I can’t quite say why it bothers me in such a personal way, and it makes me feel like a bead snob - in a bad way. I can only hope that these shops will inspire bead novices to start the craft, and move up from there.

I’d love to hear what you think! Do you have a favorite brick and mortar bead shop? What makes it special?

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  1. We do have one store locally where you can go find inspiration and they do carry some unique focals. I don't do a lot of shopping there however because they are so expensive but I do love their classes.

    1. Shops that offer classes are great - it's just one more way that they are keeping the craft alive.

  2. I wish you could come to St Louis! We have Ladybug Beads, one of the best bead shops in the country. They have a huge selection of regular and special items, beautifully organized, frequent sales (!) and well over a hundred made-up samples for tons of inspiration. It is also just barely close enough for me to zoom over on my lunch break to grab something I'm missing. You can get gorgeous Swarovski, or if your budget is limited, very nice Chinese crystals. You have a choice. I love going in there!
    I also went to a very tiny excellent bead shop In Gulf Shores Alabama called Blue Girl. The manager was someone who was excited about beads and had stuff there I've never seen before. I will be going back there this fall and plan to make another stop, just to see what she's gotten in.

  3. I live in the countryside so no real bead shops around here. I have had similar experiences to you when visiting bead shops in nearby towns and cities, though. It's too often been a generic mix of chinese import and very basic czech beads. Waxed round beads, expensive swarovski bicones i basic colours, fw pearl nuggets, stone chips, indian silverfoil, shell pearl nuggets, crackle glass, "tibetan silver" spacers, weddingcake beads, cloisonne, cat's eye and "ice pearls". It hasn't changed since I began beading. Sure, some trends have made an impact (leather, metal stamping, kumihimo, skulls, lunasoft/polaris, resin), but you can still find beads I now, as an experienced beader, find rather trite and cheap. Uninspiring. Fine for newbie beaders -- it was for me at least -- kids and those who just want to sell simple jewellery more or less in trend at the moment. I didn't mourned when those shops closed.

    It seems to me that bead shops around here, online and brick-and-mortar, are often started by relative newbie beaders who are enthusiastic about something they just learned about and start before knowing much about brands, unique products etc -- or maybe they just want to cash in on a hobby trend? Or are they just boring? Or simply buying the only things they think swedish beaders want?

    Many shops have similar ranges IMO. Not exactly the same, but similar. Maybe not too strange considering it's a small country and many make jewellery for a couple of years before turning to the next craft or just want to make a DIY of what ever is easy and trendy -- or they start off thinking they'll just have to learn to put a clasp on it, whatever "it" is, and then they can make money selling stuff that looks like it came from a chinese factory and claim to be makers of "handmade" jewellery. Small country means you can't always carter to a niche and make money, there's not enough beaders/customers for that, but I doubt that's the only reason why the shops seem to cater to just one kind of beader.

    That's the reasons why I started to buy more and more from abroad pretty soon after getting hooked on beads. I simple found the ranges in swedish shops uninspiring and uniform as I was developing and trying to find the right beads to express what I wanted to express. There were exceptions, of cause!, but on the whole I had to go to foreign, often american, shops to find neat findings, cool czech bead colours and a greater range of quality seed beads (now I should add there is a very good shop specializing in seeds in Sweden these days). Even just turning towards Denmark, Britain, Holland and France opened up my eyes to the range of beads and components available abroad. For years, you had to shop abroad to get copper components, for example, as they weren't common here. Even if there's a shop or two specializing partially in czech glass, I still turn to small US shops, various etsy sellers (north-american and european) and a few DaWanda shops to find czech glass in my favourite finishes and colours -- plus the latter two are the best places to find vintage beads. Sadly, I've partially missed out on the shops within the country who have stepped up and focused more on new beads, I tend to go abroad directly instead and it's too bad, not least because if many swedish beaders do that it doesn't motivate "local" shops to get the beads since we don't buy them from them.

    A long comment/rant, but you touched on a subject that has always been on my mind.

    1. It seems that you've had very similar experiences with bead shops! I find it all very confusing - like a rash of coffee bars that only serve medium roast drip brew. We're pretty lucky to be able to shop worldwide online though, so we can have the best picks.

  4. Excellent article!! And one that most every one can relate to. My story goes much the same as everyone else; when I started beading I learned very quickly that I didn't want anything to do with the plastic beads that my friend used, even tho she was the one who got me started beading. And the beads that I found at wallyworld weren't any better. I sent a letter to the manufacturer of a package I bought that were supposed to be size 11/0 and a photo of the beads, they ranged in size from a 15/0 to larger than a 6/0. His solution? send me a replacement!! Which of course I declined. I live in a very rural area and no craft stores in a 30 mile area, which wouldn't be too bad, except I don't have a car. So I do almost all my shopping online. I have thru trial and error found some sites that I know I can trust for good beads and prices. If I was younger and had more money, I would absolutely love to open a bead shop. Then I could stock it with beads I loved!! I'm not a fan of most of the "new" beads that have come out, and prefer instead vintage seed beads, cabachons, crystals, and opaque czech beads in the primary colors because I do a lot of bead embroidery and native american style pieces.

    1. Thanks, Judy! I'm glad I'm not the only one having these thoughts. It seems logical that a store specializing in beads should sell beads that are special. Cheers to the ones who do!

  5. I need to visit a bead shop in person. I do think I have found a great one online owned by a husband and wife. The woman has been making beaded jewelry for years.
    I buy a lot of my beading supplies from them. I do agree someone running a bead store should be able to create within the beading art.
    Carmilita's Handmade Jewelry

    1. I think the best bead store is one that meets the most number of needs you have - whether it's online or brick and mortar. If you love the products and the way the company operates, then shop away!

  6. Well, it seems that more bead stores are going out of business. Here is Arizona in the Phoenix area we have a few good bead stores. The most important item for all of my beady friends here and myself is seed beads! Finding a good selection of Japanese seed beads is very difficult although we have a pretty good seed bead store in Mesa, AZ.

    1. I would love to live in one of the bead-friendly zones like Arizona or California! The bead culture in this part of the world is really lacking, which is too bad. It's one of the many reasons why I love being able to interact with beaders online. Hopefully beading and crafting will continue to grow, and more stores will be able to stay in business. If the selection is good, nothing beats the in-person experience of bead shopping.

  7. I have the same problem - We have a few shops here in Anchorage, AK but neither have the cut seed beads (Charlottes?) only the super fancy Delicas that come in tiny containers and the standard Czech colors. I like a 40 gram minimum (1 hank) when I buy my seed beads. I do embroidery pieces that get rather large and those awesome colored Delicas would end up making my projects way too expensive.

    I found a store while on a family vacation in California.It's in Escondido and it's called the Dancing Bear. They have those sparkly blingy Charlotte and cut seed beads - worth the trip! Here's the website - they do online orders as well -

    1. I know what you mean about package sizes. Before my old craft store closed, the choices were tubes of Czech beads, or teeny, tiny packs of Japanese beads. I could never understand the point of buying so few, regardless of price.


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