Free To Bead is a colorful, closet-sized shop along Seiberling in Peoria Heights, just off Prospect Road. Strings of beads hang on the walls, stalls of beads line counters along the walls, and more beads cover the top of the square-shaped island that takes up almost all of the store's floor space. Some people visit the store to shop for beads. Some people find more than they expected.
"I see people come in here and lose themselves, almost like they're in meditation. It has something to do with the beads, the beauty, the sparkle, the color, the feel. I think those kinds of things lift us up."
- Janet Hill, owner of Free To Bead in Peoria Heights
Free To Bead is a colorful, closet-sized shop along Seiberling in Peoria Heights, just off Prospect Road. Strings of beads hang on the walls, stalls of beads line counters along the walls, and more beads cover the top of the square-shaped island that takes up almost all of the store's floor space.
Lola, the official greeter, is the dog who sits in the window, waiting to lick customers and entertain children and husbands while mothers and wives explore.
Some people visit the store to shop for beads. Some people find more than they expected.
"I opened the door and everything changed," says Eleanor Dixon.
Dixon was not happy when she discovered Free to Bead. She had not lived in Peoria long. Though Peoria was friendly, it wasn't Kansas City, Mo. She had lived there 15 years. She had a home she loved and a new granddaughter there. She had not wanted to leave Kansas City but her husband's job relocated him to the Peoria area, and she followed. Reluctantly.
Once here, she was constantly asking, "Lord, why am I here?" She and her husband would hop in the car and explore the city and surrounding areas on weekends. She noticed the bead shop on one of their weekend drives. She went in.
"The more I walked around the shop, the more I saw things that drew me in," Dixon says. "I felt welcomed."
The bead shop became her place to be. She'd go in almost daily and stay for hours, sitting at her corner of the counter, "living out life."
It's a toss-up as to whether it's the beads that drew her to this place or the owner.
Janet Hill opened the bead shop in 2004, "the year the bottom dropped out of my life." She found out her boyfriend was cheating, her mother died, and she was fired from her job.
The job termination was unfair, she thought, and she believed if she fought it, she'd win. But she didn't want her old job back, she wanted back pay and benefits.
"I told myself 'if I win this grievance I'd start a bead store,' and that's what I did."
Hill had always loved beads. Back in 2004, she was surprised the area didn't already have a bead shop. By 2009, she wasn't surprised to learn Dixon found more than beads in her shop.
Her first customer helped her put her emotional pain in perspective. The woman was visiting from Atlanta. She had seen an ad for the shop in a national bead and button magazine, and she told Hill how her fiance had gotten seriously injured right before the wedding and was now living in a nursing home.
"As women began coming in, I became aware I was getting all this love and comfort from women," Hill says. "We'd talk about everything, men, women, children, jobs. It was the healing power of empathy, somebody knowing how you feel. It got me through."
They'd sift through the beads and sort out their problems and dreams. They'd make coincidental connections, share advice and insight on everything from health to husbands. Open bead nights, the monthly bead-project potlucks became known, jokingly, as bead-and-bitch nights.
Ironically, Hill, a registered nurse who had been fired from a hospital, came to see her shop as a healing place and the beads as an essential part of the healing.
"There is something primal about beads," she says, listing all the ways they've been used throughout history, from money to worry beads and prayer beads. Her mother's Rosary beads hang on the wall behind the counter.
"I see people come in here and lose themselves, almost like they're in meditation," she says. "It has something to do with the beads, the beauty, the sparkle, the color, the feel. I think those kinds of things lift us up."
Dixon says she's visited bead shops in other cities and they're not like Free to Bead. "What happens there happens because Janet allows it to happen. The circle of people in the shop also have her same caring, nurturing spirit."
Recently, Dixon realized the answer to the question she asked when she first arrived, "Lord, why am I here?" She's working on two master's degrees, she spends more quality time with her husband, and she's nurturing her creative side through the beadwork.
"Peoria has truly brought me all the things I've asked for along the way."
Eventually, Hill plans to have an employee, Merrell Hickey - who basically works for beads - paint a quote on the walls that describes the shop's real mission. It's a quote from a book of prayers, "Illuminata," by Marianne Williamson:
"This business is but a front for a temple, a healing place where all shall be lifted above the insanity of the frightened world."
Pam Adams can be reached at (309) 686-3245 or firstname.lastname@example.org.