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Maintaining College Town Culture Amid Bead Paradise Closing

by Saffron Forsberg

[originally published spring 2020]


This year will be Ruth Aschaffenburg’s 32nd and final year owning and operating Bead Paradise in downtown Oberlin. For her daughter and fellow Oberlin College alum Silvija, it will have been 17 years. “I grew up in the small college town of Oberlin, Ohio and was exposed to music, art, and performance my entire life,” writes Oberlin native Ruth Aschaffenburg on the bead shop’s website. “As a child, I quickly learned to love antique jewelry and beading.” The shop’s equally chipper and sentimental Facebook page—featuring a cover photo of the mother-daughter pair sharing coordinated grins and outfits, arm-in-arm—proves Ruth and Silvija have weathered significant changes to the college town while maintaining the history, quality, and sincerity of their small business. Indeed, before being housed in that little shop on College Street, Oberlin’s original Bead Paradise occupied the second floor of the Co-op Bookstore, a destination that, like many other downtown Oberlin haunts, has long ceased to exist—in this instance, in favor of the sterile universality of a campus Barnes and Noble. It is for this reason that, when approaching Silvija Aschaffenburg-Koschnick for a quick chat on her shop’s liquidation sale amid her busy schedule, I feared hearing the same dreaded narrative of a locally owned business being pushed out of town by a slicker, less characteristically small-town alternative.

“Well, my mom—who also owns the place—wants to retire,” said Aschaffenburg, matter-of-factly. “And I’d like to move on and try something else.”

Saddened yet relieved, I quickly discussed the city of Oberlin, past and present, with an optimistic Aschaffenburg. While addressing the progressing relationship between downtown Oberlin and the college campus, she addressed the “strained relationship” between the two, but seemed unphased. “Get to know your neighbors, shop small businesses,” she said. As for the future of Oberlin, Aschaffenburg sees only “room for things to change for the positive” in the old college town. Despite the departure of such a charming Oberlin staple, it seems Silvija and her mother are on to better things.

Talking to Aschaffenburg, I couldn’t help but reflect on Ruth and Silvija’s mother-daughter dynamic. Being the daughter of another passionate, thoughtfully bejeweled woman residing across the country, everything about it made sense. When my mother visited Oberlin, Ohio for the first time in 1992, she was 22 years old. In photos, she could pass for seventeen: hair forever long, dark, and devoutly unstyled beside the trendy perms of her Midwestern friends, comically small in her inky trench coat, gaze thoughtful and coolly avoidant of the camera, and with hands that always nursed a cigarette. She lived in Akron, Ohio with a girlfriend who bought her sundresses and combat boots. She was exactly who she needed to be as a politically engaged, working-class woman occupying a Northern college town in the 1980s and ’90s. This version of my mother is perhaps the one that most fascinates me for a number of reasons, but mostly because, in a strange twist of fate, I too fled the South for Ohio at the age of eighteen, completely unaware that she had done the same.

My mother never had the means—economic or otherwise—to attend Oberlin College. In fact, as a working-class Southerner, I didn’t realize Oberlin College existed until my senior year of high school. The closest thing I had to a campus tour was the shifting sensory memory of my mother, baby-faced and politically tattooed, standing on College Street in the summer of ’92. She described it as smelling of “incense, patchouli, and cigarettes.” She found Oberlin students intimidating, was envious of their intelligence, style, and socioeconomic stature. “There were hippie kids everywhere, and I was so sad that I couldn’t go to school there,” she told me. The Oberlin she created for me was a realm of youthful ruggedness, of down-to-Earth privilege gliding in and out of local shops, and a politically conscious, college town quaintness that I had never experienced. Her romantic Oberlin, among other things, consisted of an apothecary, a co-op bookstore, and, of course, Bead Paradise.

Funnily enough, my mother drove from Akron to Oberlin almost thirty years ago just to go to Bead Paradise. “We had a plan to make long, beaded necklaces to sell at the Grateful Dead concert that was at this outdoor racetrack,” she explained. So, when she and I spoke of her memories of the town, the little bead shop on College Street always took center-stage. When she visited again in August of 2019, the town charmed her but, admittedly and unsurprisingly, had lost the “hippie kid” ruggedness of the early ‘90s. By-and-large, the historic small businesses she remembered had closed in favor of more modern, business-savvy alternatives. She expressed to me that, like many towns and cities across the United States that faced gentrification, some of Oberlin’s uniqueness had been “smoothed over.” And, despite Bead Paradise’s closing being the decision of its owners, she was sad upon being informed of its closing. To my mother, a person who knew another Oberlin, the closing of Bead Paradise represents the decay of a specific type of culture unique to the small town she remembered so fondly.

This being said, one can’t help but dwell on the optimism of Oberlin natives Ruth and Silvija, women who don’t recall Oberlin purely in a memory of youth, but as a home. The Aschaffenburgs hold the history of their business and town dear, but still feel there is “room for things to change for the positive.” Bead Paradise will continue its liquidation sale until closing its doors at the end of March. Until then, one can rest assured that it will always be a memorable Oberlin staple. On the Bead Paradise website, Ruth Aschaffeburg writes, “I am so fortunate to be employed in a business that brings me such infinite joy!”

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