On the Job Road Again, With a New Map

I began wearing jewelry when I was 14, and started creating my own a year later. Commercial jewelry bored me to tears, and I did not want to look like everybody else.

I strung seed beads on elastic. I cut up plastic margarine tubs to spell “LOVE”. I knotted leather cords with colorful wooden beads and hardware hex nuts.

By the time I was 17, the hippie movement trickled into suburban Chicago and my friends asked if I could make jewelry for them. (The seed beads — not the hex nuts or repurposed margarine tubs.)

During my first year of college, I designed dozens of seed bead chokers, woven seed bead rings, and wired seed bead hoop earrings for the other gals in the dorm. I never intended to start a business — I just liked making things, and if people were willing to pay me for it, why not?

When I declared financial independence at the tender age of 21, I had never held a job other than camp counselor for a month after high school. Suddenly I had to pay for housing, sustenance, and college tuition, with no idea where the money would come from.

I answered telephones. I filed papers for an insurance company. I filed more papers and answered more telephones in a succession of temporary jobs which I dubbed “trained monkey work”. I was a waitress for two weeks.

I earned enough for rent and food,, but needed substantially more cash if I planned to finish school. My employment options were limited.

In a fit of either genius or desperation, I attached the handle and wheels from a kiddie wagon to a Mechanical Creeper, hooked two pegboards together into an A-frame on top of the cart, wired dowels to the pegboards, and hung jewelry from the dowels. I wheeled the cart down to High Street, the main drag adjacent to Ohio State U.

A business was born.

Six years later, I graduated college.

I opened a tiny jewelry shop inside a T-shirt printing store, but after a year of being in the shop for 10-hour days, I realized that I needed more freedom, and I needed to see the sun.

                                           *   *   *   *   *

Les and I moved to California in 1980 and bought our house in 1981. Soon after, I saw a newspaper ad for a local craft fair. I walked through the booths, talked to most of the artists, and knew that this was what I wanted to do.

I asked vendors for recommendations and visited more shows. I subscribed to several magazines listing markets and craft events.

I sold everywhere from giant street festivals to farmers’ markets, PTA bake sales to galleries, colleges to home boutiques. In addition to jewelry, I painted T-shirts, published poetry books, painted glassware, and decorated ceramics. My display grew bigger — and bigger, and bigger. I had more ideas than hours in a day. I worked 60-80 hours a week, every week.

I was a craft fair gypsy, always on the road, setting up or tearing down. I knew most of the regular artisans on the local craft circuit, and considered them my second family.

I had no plans to retire, ever. This was who I was and what I did. I joked that I would still be setting up my booth every weekend until I was 120.

Until my cancer returned in January 2016.

I was in treatment for 16 months. Most of that time I was too sick and weak to do much of anything, let alone assemble a 500-lb. display and smile at people.

I started several websites since 2008, but the the income was more supplemental than sustaining. However, my bead room was stacked wall-to-wall with thousands of pieces of finished jewelry, with no way to sell them except online. I would focus on internet sales, and return to live shows when my health was better.

I read umpteen articles about e-commerce and SEO. I learned to take and edit professional-ish photos. I listed more and more items.

Unfortunately, one of the side effects of chemotherapy is neuropathy, nerve damage and numbness in fingers and toes. I couldn’t feel tiny beads or pick them up from a tray. My hands shook. I compensated with tools, but for the first time in my life, my hands were slow and clumsy. I was scared — not just for my life, but for my way of life.

My oncologist prescribed Gabapentin (Neurontin) for neuropathy, but stopped after a year because of possible long-term side effects. 80% of the feeling in my fingertips has returned, but that’s probably as good as it’s going to get.

                                           *   *   *   *   *

…and now that I’m able to return to the crafts fair circuit — I don’t want to. I don’t ever want to wake up before dawn to drive across town to spend two hours setting up a booth which I’ll have to pack up at the end of the day when I’m dead tired. No more hanging on to my display in gusting winds and feeling my energy sucked by broiling blacktops and getting sicker-than-sick from migraines exacerbated by heat and lack of sleep.

Some days I really really miss the itinerant arts-and-craft fair life — but then I don’t. Well, I miss the wonderful people I met, but the rest? Nah, not so much. I thought of craft fairs as my life, but now I realize it was a 45-year chapter in my life, and it’s over.

I work 40 hours every week, but after decades of 60-80 hours, I almost feel like a slacker. (Almost. I try not to do guilt.) Most of my business is online, with my jewelry also shown in two local galleries. I still have no plans to retire. I love what I do.

For anyone who doesn’t know — my main venue is Amazon Handmade, with older merchandise in ArtFire and Etsy. My shop name everywhere is Meredithbead.

And (Surprise! Surprise!) I’m earning more money from the comfort of my home than I did shlepping every week to live events. I might never have made the transition had I not been forced into changing a pattern that defined 2/3 of my life.

                                           *   *   *   *   *

This is the first of my last three posts for this blog. I hope to wind up by the end of next week.

I disabled comments on older posts due to spam, but I’ll leave comments open on the new posts for several weeks.

Craft fair display, 2001