Paa-Bekoe Welbeck is a native of Ghana who came to the United States 20 years ago with $100 in his pocket. After accumulating a batch of academic degrees, Welbeck went to work at the Howard University school of dentistry, got married and was later recruited for a job with an independent research group in Hawaii.
It was during life on the islands that Welbeck and his wife, Elnora, discovered a hobby that gradually grew, as Welbeck puts it, into an addiction they could support only by selling their home, a car and their furniture. The Welbeck's particular weakness, which has resulted in their new business in Silver Spring, is collecting artifacts of the Pacific islands.
Last week, they opened Welbeck's Jewelry and Gifts, a store specializing in imports the couple personally transported here after a 90,000-mile trip around Pacific islands such as Tahiti, American and Western Samoa, Papua New Guinea and the Tonga Islands. They say they have $250,000 worth of artifacts, acquired without the aid of outside financing.
Welbeck says that when he began buying Hawaiian gifts to bring to friends on the mainland, the seed that has grown into the business on Georgia Avenue was planted. From there, it was only a question of time before it occurred to the couple that they ought to sell some of their purchases, which were continuing to accumulate.
"We started with $250 capital to buy the initial artifacts we wanted to sell," Welbeck said. "Slowly we became so addicted that we came to the point where we had to dip into other sources to keep up our habit, so we sold one of our cars to use the money to invest in inventory. Then we sold some of our furniture. And every time I got paid we would go and bargain hunt at the swap meets, where we really got turned on to some of the unusual things you could find."
The Welbecks have plans, assuming that their business does well, to conduct an essay contest for young people. They would offer as a grand prize a trip to the lands where the couple does their collecting.
"We hope that, if the business does well, we can pour some of our profits right back into the community by offering travel grants, hopefully in cooperation with a travel agency, an airline, a hotel, places I've established contacts," Welbeck said. "Say, in Fiji, we might be able to get local residents to open their doors to some young people from here. We would pay living expenses and inter-island travel, which is expensive. We would pick the winner by an essay competition on an agreed-upon topic, and set up a committee to make a final decision" on the winner.
Another community service the Welbecks would like to offer is college scholarships, although they say this is an idea for future consideration.