Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Oil and lye

I've been thinking about oil for the past few months.

Coconut oil, palm oil; olive, castor, avocado and sweet almond oils.

And I've been thinking about butters...avocado, cocoa, hemp and mango.

I've even been thinking about beeswax.

In short, I've been thinking about making soap.

It's been a long time -- just over a year -- since I've made soap. I stopped making soap not because I got tired of making soap. Rather, it was an issue of having so much soap already in the house, pounds and pounds of it, that it seemed silly to keep adding to it. The soap I had on hand was useful for family purposes only; it was all the rough ends of loaves and soap balls that turned out to be more egg-shaped and stuff that I was experimenting with, maybe on a combination of colors or scents or shapes or all three, that didn't turn out as planned. Anyway, it was all soap that I refused to sell because it didn't pass my quality control standards.

I used to have a soap business called St. Florian Soapmakers LLC. I sold a lot of nice soap and a bunch of truly excellent lip balm (my own recipes, of which I am very proud). I had a little catalog website and a catalog, a PayPal account and even a debit/credit card swiper. I went to craft shows and did home parties and ran a mail-order business via the internet, shipping soap to thirty-eight of the fifty states.

St. Florian Soapmakers LLC closed in 2005, not because I was doing badly. I was actually making some money, which was quite a thrill. Soapmaking can be a really expensive and I was managing to make back what I spent for supplies, plus a little profit. But I closed the business in spite of this because it was KILLING ME. I was a one-woman show, doing all the manufacturing, the packaging, the marketing, the website designing and maintaining, the shipping/receiving, the ordering...I even had to do the accounting, and that was the straw that finally broke the camel's back.

Soap, when you think about it, is not very expensive. It can be, but it doesn't have to be. I charged a fair price for my soap, enough to make a modest profit per bar without gouging my customers. Let me tell you, though, you have to sell a lot of soap to make all the effort involved worthwhile. And when I say "a lot," I mean hundreds of pounds. Hundreds. Of. Pounds. Preferably every month.

At the height of my business, I was making about twenty-five pounds of soap per week and that was just enough to keep up with demand. Which was good! Don't get me wrong. I was really pleased about that. But then The Season started, that time of the year when people start buying Christmas presents. I had barely recovered from Mother's Day when all of a sudden, orders for gift baskets came flooding in, mostly from internet sales.

In November and December of 2005, I went to the post office with enormous stacks of boxes two or three times a week. The staff at the local PO got to know me, although the me they knew was one with frizzy hair, dark circles under my eyes and a slight air of hysteria. I was really worried about sending the wrong present to the wrong recipient and making a customer angry. It was really stressful, mostly because I was an unflagging perfectionist and checked and re-checked addresses and order forms two, three, four, five times before slapping on mailing labels and then checking it all again a few more million times.

My last trip to the post office was somewhere around December 18. My husband went with me, because there were too many boxes for me to carry by myself without making several trips back and forth to the car. All that was visible of us was our legs: our torsos and heads were completely obscured by teetering stacks of fragrant packages outward bound for fifteen different states, including Alaska.

When we got back in the car, I fell into my seat and closed my eyes. "I can't do this anymore," I said, my voice rasping in my throat. "It's too much. I can't believe people like handmade soap this much. Do they have any idea what they're putting me through, with these relentless orders and their recommendations to friends and family and their suggestions that I open a factory and retail establishments in shopping malls? I'M NOT THAT STRONG."

"You don't have to keep doing it," my husband reminded me. "You can stop. You're a sole proprietor. You can call the IRS and cancel your federal tax ID number and your small biz bank account and just stop. No one ever said that you had to do this forever."

"Oh, good," I said. "Because as of now, the business is officially closed."

When I called the IRS, the agent to whom I was speaking giggled when I sourly told her I was closing my business because it was too successful. "Strangely enough, I don't hear that very often."

"Well, my nerves are whittled into kindling," I said. "I'm making enough money to turn a nice profit, considering that this is just a little cottage industry, but I'm not making enough money to hire someone else -- or several someone elses, more to the point -- to shoulder some of the burden. I could afford to pay someone about $2.00 an hour, part time, and I'm thinking that's illegal."

"That's too bad," she sympathized. "But at least you can go out in glory."

"I suppose," I said grumpily. "Listen, can I tell you something frankly?"

"Sure!" she said. "What else are IRS agents good for if not to hear frank statements from taxpayers?"

I pondered that for a moment before plaintively replying. "Look, making the soap and packaging the soap and marketing the soap and selling the soap and ordering supplies to make the soap and filling orders for soap was all hard enough, but doing the taxes on the soap I sold? That was the absolute worst. It sucked the will to do business right out of me. Federal taxes, state taxes, county taxes...I thought I'd go mad."

"I can see how it could get to you."

"I am not a numbers person. And having to deal with numbers every month when I filled out those state tax forms...it made me want to eat my own head."

"Thank goodness you decided to close it down before that happened," she said seriously. "You have no idea, the number of calls we take from business owners who have cracked from the stress of dealing with tax laws and accounting and have actually eaten their own heads, although actually, they have to get someone else to call in for them. Because they don't have mouths anymore. Because their mouths are on their heads. Which have been eaten."

"Errm...listen, I need to hang up now, so about that tax ID number?"

"Right. Got it taken care of, soap lady."


Anyway, that's the story of my soap business. I don't think I'll ever start it up again, but I'm not finished with soap. I still like making it, and now that we've used up all the tag ends and ugly bars, I'm thinking how enormously fun it would be to make more. Just two pounds to start off with. Scented with my favorite summery scent, roses combined with a fresh, grassy scent. Just like the gardens at Biltmore House.

I do love making soap.


Kbg said...

Dear St. Florian: I am hoping for some of your special soaps and lip balm...am willing to make "contribution" for such or barter for specialty food items concocted in Kayte's Kitchen. Do I need to light a candle?

laser girl said...

i was thinking about making soap but after reading your thoughts and experiences,i'm thinking NO. but having said (typed) that, i'm keeping an open mind. can you suggest a "short read" book that is informative and not overwhelming so that i might give it more thought? thanks, love love love your blogs and thoughts. wish we were neighbors