Columbus, Ohio USA
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The Bead Goes On
Byzantium Turns 25
By Jennifer Hambrick
June 2010 Issue
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Photos © Larry Hamill
Joyce Griffiths, owner of Byzantium, holds a string of glass beads made by artist Jimi Kola from old lamps – by far the biggest beads around!
On a sunny spring day, Joyce Griffiths removes a clear plastic tray packed with a dozen tiny plastic boxes from a display case at the Short North bead mecca, Byzantium. She pulls a thumbnail-sized jade-colored figurine from one of the boxes and rests it in the palm of her hand.
“Art Deco Buddhas,” Griffiths marvels as she looks at the little figure smiling up at her. “Who’d’ve thought?”
The same question might be asked of Byzantium itself: who’d’ve thought a bead specialty shop would withstand the whims of fickle markets for nearly 25 years? Who’d’ve thought Byzantium would evolve from a bead store into nothing short of a center for the study and celebration of the bead?
Since opening in June of 1985, Byzantium, at 1088 N. High St., has grown steadily – even as the popularity of beading and beadwork has waxed and waned – and has branched out into other types of collectibles. The result: a full-out cultural experience through the lens of beads, antique silver jewelry and other curios, much of which you’re not likely to find under the same roof elsewhere in Columbus.
At Byzantium’s quarter-century milestone, its owner, Joyce Griffiths, reflects on how the store came to be, how it came to be hers and what it will have to do to stay afloat for another 25 years.
To know the story of Byzantium, one must first know the story of its founder. In the early 1980s, Libby Gregory was a joint owner of Trade Winds, a campus-area vendor of eclectic gift items: T-shirts, incense, jewelry and loose beads.
Kat Agdinaoay was a regular customer and, later, an employee at Trade Winds during Gregory’s years there in the early 1980s. At that time, Agdinaoay lived around the corner from the store, which she visited often to comb through the glass jar of penny beads Gregory had on display at the bead counter.
“She (Gregory) would be at the bead counter while I was sifting through the things and we’d just kind of talk about things,” Agdinaoay said. “I would come in there and just stand there for hours and go through them.”
One day Gregory invited Agdinaoay to come to work for Trade Winds. The offer took her by surprise, but it also made sense.
“I think she thought that that seemed like something that she would like to have in an employee, someone who loved the stuff,” Agdinaoay said.
When Gregory inherited some money upon her mother’s death, she decided the time was ripe to own her own business. She bought a row of properties in the 200-block of W. King Ave. and, in the summer of 1985, opened a store devoted to her beloved beads and catering to people interested in the culture and aesthetics of beads and beadwork. She called the place Byzantium, a nod to the ancient empire and commercial center. Agdinaoay joined Gregory’s staff there in 1986.
Haitian Voudou banner used in ceremonies to summon intermediary spirits. May contain 20,000 to 30,000 sequins.
At Byzantium, Agdinaoay says, Gregory guided her into the world of beads.
“She knew so much stuff and she had a bunch of cats and she was always saying ‘Hold out your paw,’ and you’d hold out your hand and she’d put some sort of little treasure in it that she would tell you about,” Agdinaoay said.
Those little treasures could have been white hearts, beads with luminous white middles that glow through a translucent red coating. Or they might have been Ethiopian telsum beads, silver beads of different shapes, each representing a different prayer and traditionally given as gifts on the birth of a child. Or they might have been Lewis and Clark beads – one of Agdinaoay’s favorites – reputed to have been what Lewis and Clark traded with Native Americans on their expedition out west. Or they might have been Indian skull beads, large or small, which Gregory bought from someone in her international network of bead traders.
Agdinaoay found all of these types of beads – and more – at Byzantium. Many exotic beads now appear in Agdinaoay’s personal collection of strung beads and finished beaded jewelry, all of which she made after starting work at Byzantium. She says Gregory allowed her staff members one day each week to select merchandise from the store from which to create jewelry to sell at Byzantium. Agdinaoay says the opportunity to learn beadwork and jewelry making – and the chance to have her work displayed and sold at Byzantium – helped her discover her own creativity.
“(Gregory) definitely was one of the great mentors in my life,” Agdinaoay said. “I was a little seed and she watered me and let me see that what I could do was good and that I had talent. That was a whole new thing for me. And I think she did that for other people, too.”
By the time Agdinaoay had embarked on what would become a 12-year career at Byzantium, the store’s future owner had already become a regular customer. In the summer of 1985, mere weeks after Gregory opened Byzantium’s doors, Joyce Griffiths, a pharmacist-turned-veterinarian, arrived in Columbus from Ann Arbor, Mich., to attend graduate school in veterinary pharmacology at Ohio State. A seasoned beader, Griffiths was exploring her new neighborhood one day and came upon Byzantium. Griffiths says it was a bead store the likes of which had been few since the beadwork trend of the 1960s and ’70s had waned with the decline of what she calls “Hippiedom.”
Tammy Irwin (left) has been working at Byzantium for 14 years, longer than any other employee. Corby Beller, at right, is the newest hire, 8 years ago.
Griffiths and Gregory became friends and that same year established the Bead Society of Central Ohio. All of Byzantium’s employees and beaders from other walks of life met regularly at Byzantium, and later in another nearby space Gregory owned, to hear lectures on the cultural history of beads and hone their bead-working skills. Gregory eventually started the Ohio Bead Art Competition, which gave visibility to bead workers’ creations.
A former employee of both Byzantium and the next-door King Avenue Coffeehouse, which Gregory opened in 1986, Del Sroufe started beading and became a prizewinner in the Ohio Bead Art Competition and began his career as a professional chef under Gregory’s mentoring. Sroufe, the founder of Wellness Forum Foods, had been a frequent customer of the King Avenue Coffeehouse, where one of his friends worked. When in 1989 he mentioned that he was looking for some managerial experience, Gregory hired him as the coffee house’s assistant manager.
After years of listening to Gregory in the coffee house’s menu development meetings, Sroufe had fully digested her expectations for the vegetarian restaurant’s fare. In the mid-1990s, a few years after Gregory’s death, he started creating vegan baked goods for the coffee house.
“I was allowed to have a creative outlet there that I’m sure I wouldn’t have gotten at other places without that kind of freedom,” Sroufe said.
Sroufe’s vegan baked goods became the foundational product line for Del’s Bread, which Sroufe opened in 1997. Sroufe later ran Del’s Home Cooking out of his home. He joined the Wellness Forum in 2006.
But even before Sroufe started working for Byzantium in the early 1990s, Gregory had led him to the bead.
“I became a bead fanatic before I ever went to work there (Byzantium), almost from day one of working at the coffee house, and she (Gregory) fostered that,” Sroufe said. “She loved beads, and she wanted everyone to love beads too. She was always putting strands of beads in your hands and saying, ‘feel that. Doesn’t that feel great?’ You were always learning about some trade bead that was very rare at some point.”
Sroufe remembers some of the exotic beads Gregory had on hand, like expensive, Czech-made chevron beads and multi- colored Japanese sugar beads. Sroufe also remembers telling Gregory about some of the bead stores where he had shopped on visits with his father in California. Gregory decided to check out some of the West Coast shops, and on Feb. 1, 1991, she and Byzantium employee Shelly Stambaugh flew to Los Angeles en route to an annual gem stone trade show in Tucson.
A mask representing a corn or fertility god, carved and hand-painted by Guatemalan mask maker Arturo Aj Canil.
They never made it.
Sroufe was out of town when Gregory and Stambaugh’s plane crashed upon landing at a Los Angeles airport. When he got back to Columbus and went to the coffee house, he dissolved into tears with two of his co-workers. They all wanted to keep Gregory’s dream alive.
“One thing we wanted to do was carry on Libby’s legacy,” Sroufe said. “Byzantium was a safe haven, if you will, in a commercial-industrial world. There was this place that was just art and beauty. And the coffee house – there weren’t very many vegetarian restaurants around at the time. So we knew there was an importance to what we were doing.”
Immediately after Gregory’s death, Byzantium’s fate rested in the hands of her brother, Ohio State University history professor Tim Gregory. The year before her death, Libby Gregory had tried to recruit Griffiths to work part-time for Byzantium, but Griffiths had declined the offer. Faced with Gregory’s death, and hoping to keep Byzantium alive, Griffiths dug up the offer of employment Gregory had made her and presented it to Tim Gregory.
“I said I would step in and run this store until he could figure out what he wanted to do,” Griffiths said.
Tim Gregory took Griffiths up on her offer. The job was a match for Griffiths: she could call upon her experience as pharmacist and manager of a small Denver, Co., drug store to run Byzantium, and she knew a lot about the beads in the store’s stock. But mostly, Griffiths says, the job was a good fit because Libby Gregory had all but placed her in it.
“Libby always had a way of choosing people to do things that she wanted them to do,” Griffiths said. “She was always looking for people to fill niches in her plans, and I guess that was a niche that I seemed to fill and it seemed to work. So I kind of feel like she asked me to come in and step in.”
In December 1992, Griffiths bought Byzantium. She has seen the store through the ebb and flow of the highly cyclical bead market and through its move, in January 2000, to its larger present location on High St. But even though Griffiths has carried the business forward, she says she and others felt Gregory’s presence at Byzantium long after her death.
Things Happen Here
In the early 1980s, Libby Gregory was a joint owner of Trade Winds, a campus-area vendor of eclectic gift items: T-shirts, incense, jewelry and loose beads.
The idea that Gregory essentially lined up her replacement at Byzantium may seem unlikely, but Griffiths and other Byzantium employees say unusual occurrences happened all the time at the store during the first several years after Gregory’s death. Griffiths considers these occurrences to be “messages” from Gregory and says she and others Byzantium employees took them seriously.
First, there was the time when two of Gregory’s old friends came in to Byzantium’s King Ave. location, and a baseball-sized chunk of rose quartz flew off its shelf in a bookcase behind the sales counter, landing six feet away, beyond the counter, on the floor at the feet of the visitors.
“Rose quartz is a stone of friendship and love, and the fact that it landed right in front of these old friends of hers was too much just to say it was coincidence,” said Griffiths, who witnessed the event.
Then there was the 1999 china shelf incident. Griffiths had already decided to move Byzantium to High St., and she and other bead enthusiasts had gathered for the final meeting of the Bead Society of Central Ohio in the small space at 249 W. King Ave. The group had been discussing how to move an altar Gregory had set up years earlier in the store when suddenly there was crash in the tiny back-room kitchen area. The top shelf of a china cabinet had fallen, tumbling some pots and pans to the ground. But that shelf had completely missed the shelf below it, where stacks of china sat unscathed.
“Under normal circumstances, if that shelf had fallen, it should’ve fallen down on the second shelf below it, and all that stuff should have crashed and burned too,” Griffiths said. “So we felt that . . . she (Gregory) was letting us know that she was aware of what was going on, but she wasn’t upset about it, because if she was upset about it, it would have been a horrible, big mess.”
Byzantium manager Roxanne McGovern says she believes Gregory, whom she never met, led her to Byzantium and into a fulfilling career. As a student at Kent State in the early 1990s, McGovern got interested in beading by studying vintage beaded items she found at flea markets and estate sales. She found no bead stores in Kent, so she made her own glass beads with a torch and a kiln and started creating jewelry.
The late Libby Gregory, founder of Byzantium.
In 1993, a friend, who also knew Griffiths, took McGovern on a visit to Byzantium. McGovern brought some of her hand-made beads, all of which Griffiths bought for the store. From Byzantium’s eclectic stock McGovern bought beads that, she says, took her beadwork to the next level.
“My jewelry went from being all glass to being mixed media – sterling, crystal, gold, ethnic beads from around the world,” McGovern said. “Instead of being one flavor, it just started melding and becoming more complex.”
McGovern and Griffiths traded for years and became friends. When in 1998 Griffiths was seeking someone to manage the store’s operations, she offered McGovern the job.
“I was stuck in a dead-end graphic design job,” McGovern said. “I said, ‘I’ll quit tomorrow.’”
The next day, she signed on to manage Byzantium.
McGovern moved to Columbus and, out with a friend one day, she followed an impulse to drive through a nearby cemetery. McGovern spotted a little bridge and drove over it. Then something compelled her to stop the car.
“We got out, we walked up to the first gravesite, and it was Libby’s,” McGovern said. “I said, ‘this can’t be Libby’s grave.’”
McGovern called Griffiths, who confirmed that Gregory had been buried there. Then McGovern noticed that from where she stood at Gregory’s grave, she could see the windows of her own apartment.
McGovern went home, took a bottle of rose oil down from a shelf and returned to Gregory’s grave.
“And I said, ‘thank you so much for leading me down here and finding this apartment. I feel this is all linked together, and I feel so grateful to you,’” McGovern said.
Tanzanian Makonde tribe drums are among the many surprises at Byzantium.
McGovern helped see Byzantium through its move from King Ave. to High St. in 2000. Even then, the unusual occurrences didn’t stop. During the summer of 2002, and with the twelfth anniversary of Gregory’s death approaching the following February, Griffiths noticed that a Byzantine icon of an angel Gregory had owned, and which Griffiths keeps poised on a shelf above her desk in Byzantium’s back office, jumped off its shelf while Griffiths was working at her desk. Not long after, Griffiths came into the store and found several angel figurines strewn about the sales floor.
Things began to make sense on Feb. 1, 2003, when two women came into Byzantium. They had taken notice of the store’s shrine to Gregory and walked up to the sales counter.
“They said, ‘you’ve created a shrine to her (Gregory) right here and it’s holding her back. And she needs to go on to the next level. This physical thing is holding her spirit here, and it needs to move on,’” Griffiths said.
She asked Rena Dennison, a Native American bead worker who has taught classes at Byzantium since the store’s earliest days, what the women’s visit could mean. Dennison told her that the twelfth anniversary of a loved one’s death has special significance in some Native American traditions. Griffiths and her staff held a ceremony for Gregory.
“I have not heard anything from her since,” Griffiths said.
Griffiths claims not to be especially attuned to the spirit world. Still, she knows a lot of Byzantium’s customers are.
“We’re a bead store. We don’t pretend to be a metaphysical store or a New Age store,” Griffiths said. “But we find that a lot of people come in and ask for stones for healing and things like that. And we have the stones, so we try to help people with that.”
Griffiths says she doesn’t believe rocks alone can solve people’s problems. So when customers come to Byzantium and ask for a bead that will help them sell their house, or a stone that will show them winning lottery numbers, Griffiths exercises caution.
“I say, ‘well, you know, this is something that’s going to help you, but you have to be contributing to this. You can’t expect this stone to take care of it all,’” Griffiths said, fingering a filigreed Hand of Fatima pendant – which she describes as “huge protection” – dangling from a gold chain around her neck. So, do stones and talismans, like the Hand of Fatima, do anything for those who wear them?
“I believe that intention in your brain is very important. And so sometimes what all these things do is just focus that intention and allow you to think of those things.” Griffiths said. “I don’t expect that this thing itself is going to change things, but when I’m wearing it, it makes me aware that, well, maybe I’ll look around a little, make sure things are safe. And I think that’s how they really work.”
Know What You’re Getting
Curious customers and an abundance of display cases keep the conversation flowing. Owner Joyce Griffiths' knowledge of beads is said to be nothing short of remarkable.
Byzantium has “worked” as a business because Gregory believed in her vision of a bead utopia and because Griffiths was in line enough with that vision to sustain it. Will the roll-up-your-sleeves effort Griffiths and others have invested in Byzantium keep the store going for another quarter-century in the age of Internet consumerism?
John Porentas, who worked as a bead distributor, bead maker and bead importer before founding the OSU sports e-zine The O-Zone in 1996, says there will always be a future for the bead business.
“People have been adorning themselves with beads for as long as people have been adorning themselves,” Porentas said.
“People will use beads and people will buy beads.”
Still, he says, with online bead distributors selling beads at or near wholesale prices, brick-and-mortar bead stores must offer eclectic stock and hands-on craft classes in order to compete.
“If I have an unusual silver bead from Bali or an unusual carved coral bead from the Touareg tribe in Morocco, I think that’s the real things that will allow some stores to survive,” Porentas said.
Porentas says Byzantium’s stock is second to none and Griffiths’ knowledge of beads is nothing short of remarkable.
“I would buy (wholesale quantities of) beads and I would come back to Columbus and I would take all that stuff to Joyce thinking I had found something no one had heard of before, and she would always know what it was. She could tell me where it came from and she could tell me an era (during which it was made) and what the price ought to be. And her pricing was always dead on the market.”
Griffiths says online bead sales has changed the landscape of her business dramatically, but she believes her store will always be important to customers who want to know they’re buying quality stones.
“If you want things that are unusual and if you want things that are different, you’d have to come here and look and see.
Because most of the time the online (experience) is not quite as perfect, you don’t necessarily know what you’re getting,” Griffiths said.
So, if Byzantium, as all good things must, were to come to an end, what in Central Ohio would replace it?
“Nothing,” Agdinaoay said flatly. “There’s not anything that’s even close.”
Maybe you can find Venetian glass millefiori beads in one local bead shop and Ethiopian penis beads (for fertility) in another. And, if you’re lucky, maybe you can find a strand of rare, top-quality larimar from a vendor who won’t try to pass off pale turquoise as this expensive and elusive gem. Or you could go to Byzantium and find all three, along with a measure of bead wisdom.
“Sometimes people aren’t completely honest in the gem industry, and a lot of people get burned,” Griffiths said. “We pick the stuff that we know is genuine. We can help you find those things so that you don’t get burned.”
Editors Note: Byzantium permanently closed in August 2010.
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