BRATTLEBORO -- Back when Brian Robertshaw was a young child, he collected coins, a hobby he picked up from his two older brothers.
After pretty well filling up his coin book he worked backwards and began to wonder why there were fewer coins to collect from the 1700s. How did humans trade and transfer wealth before coins came into play, he wondered, and what was the real value, anyway, of the shiny, metal discs with the pictures of white men on them?
After asking around a little, a coin dealer near his home in Worcester, Mass., told the precocious young boy that for hundreds of years, before the invention of coins, people traded beads.
From that day forward, Robertshaw, 47, has been searching for and collecting beads, and the pursuit has led him to a career as a co-owner of one of Brattleboro's most original and successful independent shops.
Robertshaw's Main Street store, Beadniks, is celebrating 20 years of business this year.
In October, during Gallery Walk, he is planning a full blow-out complete with a band and food and prizes in the store that is already a music-filled celebration of color and beauty on any given day that it is open.
Robertshaw's unlikely journey, as he heads into his third decade, included a little luck, some bold decisions, and a never-wavering belief in the true value of beauty and worth and a commitment to fun.
It is impossible to walk past the shop at 115 Main St. without
The music, which spills out into the street, ranges from Led Zeppelin to the theme from "Gilligan's Island."
Bright paintings splash across the walls and from the psychedelic murals down to the tiniest beads in the store's hundreds of individual display containers there is always something to catch your eye.
Robertshaw has somehow been able to balance the intricacy of a handmade bead from India with a kitschy Peanuts lunch box from the 1960s.
It's a skill he has perfected along the way from that 10-year-old who first discovered beads to his role as business owner with a staff, a payroll and a regional and national following.
The wild way
Along with his interest in coins, as a child Robertshaw developed a passion and respect for the natural world.
During his time as a Boy Scout he got interested in the skills, beliefs and crafts of Native Americans.
He went to museums, read books and met Native Americans -- and others -- who made and sold beads and beaded clothing and crafts.
The more he learned about the beads, the stronger the connection grew between them and the ancient skills that were being lost.
He started making his own beads and buying them whenever he found them.
He created head dresses and moccasins and necklaces.
During summers on Martha's Vineyard he would put out some of his beaded jewelry on a piece of driftwood.
To his surprise people bought it, and with the money he made he would reinvest in more beads, which he tracked down and stored in a tackle box.
Robertshaw went to college, and one thing he learned was that he did not want to work at a regular job. He did not want to work for someone else and he did not want to be tethered to a job that required him to be inside an office for eight hours.
When he returned to the Vineyard after graduating college, Robertshaw stumbled across an old, battered house off of the main drag.
He thought it would be a perfect place for him and his artist friends to set up studios and a gallery, and after working with the landlord he established Church Street Muse.
In 1991 he took out a business license and formally created Beadniks.
He continued selling his trinkets, and his hand-printed tee shirts which are still sold in the Brattleboro store.
Robertshaw's light bulb moment came when a shopper walked in the gallery and was admiring one of his necklaces.
She couldn't afford the necklace, but wanted to know if she could buy a single bead.
Nobody had ever asked him that, and he had never considered it.
He imagined a shop filled with beads where customers could leave with their own individual assortment.
After committing himself to creating his shop, and growing tired of the Vineyard's seasonal business, and escalating property values, he started thinking of finding a progressive, funky town in New England to take Beadniks.
Robertshaw was looking for a place where the grass was greener.
The move to Vermont
While operating his shop in Martha's Vineyard, Robertshaw met Adam Gebb, who was a world traveler selling international clothing and crafts out of his Subaru hatchback.
Robertshaw had a handshake agreement with a landlord in Amherst, Mass., when his friend Gebb called to tell him about this interesting town he discovered in southern Vermont.
There was a vegetarian restaurant, a lively arts community and, most importantly, an available storefront on Main Street.
The town was named Brattleboro.
Robertshaw found it on a map, got a bus ticket and checked it out.
He walked around, went for a swim, ate at the Common Ground and then called the property owner in Amherst to tell him he was backing out.
That fall, Beadniks opened at 119 Main St. with Robertshaw and Gebb as partners.
They moved into the larger space next door a few years later.
From the start, Robertshaw wanted his store to be different.
The Internet has grown since he opened, but Robertshaw says Beadniks has a limited presence online: It's still about getting people inside the door to listen to the music and look at and touch the beads.
The inventory has grown and now includes games, toys, clothing, crafts and art.
In a corner of the store, partially hidden behind the swirl of international goods, Robertshaw has a locked case of valuable beads. Some are hundreds of years old and they come from all corners of the globe. Robertshaw knows that most of his customers walk right past the case, but every once in a while a collector will come in and drop a few thousand dollars on a collection of beads from Europe or Africa.
Even as the economy sputters along, and downtown shops close or struggle to stay open, Robertshaw says business at Beadniks generally goes up every year.
He can still get out and go for a swim anytime he wants.
And at the end of each business day, Robertshaw says he puts more value in the number of people who leave with a smile than with the number of who come in and spend money.
"We value happiness here," he says. "We value a smile over a dollar and that's what makes this place work."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311 ext. 279. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.