Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My Bathroom Smells Great....thanks to a 15 year old bar of herbal soap

My Bathroom Smells Great!
Thanks to a 15-year old bar of herbal soap…

Granted, I spent about three times as much for this bar of soap when I purchased it from a local crafter at our flea market 15 years ago. The soap was $3.00 per bar, as opposed to the 75 cent bar I might have picked up at Wal-Mart. Yet I haven’t had to buy any kind of “smell good” for my dressing area since.

This is just one of the few benefits of buying a handcrafted item – quality. It’s good. It’s better than good. It’s made by someone’s HANDS, rather than by a machine. It’s tested by a real human being, individually, with careful thought and attention to the littlest detail.

This little bar of soap has personality. It’s different. From the special packaging to the scent, it reeks of uniqueness. (no pun intended)

It offers a fond memory, this little bar of soap with its spicy, tantalizing scent. I’ll never forget my trip down that flea market aisle. One booth had tons of remainder and slightly damaged health and beauty items…the stuff you see in every major chain store in the country…and at discounted prices. But the alluring scent from five booths away is what grabbed my attention away from the bland and familiar and made my legs keep on moving.

I sauntered past the discount booth. I stopped when I found the incredible scent, coming from a booth full of large, rectangular bars of rough-looking soap, each bar wrapped like a miniature gift in a colorful piece of tissue paper. And that’s when I met Julia and her husband. They explained the process each bar of soap goes through before it appears in its final form. They told me about the various herbs they use, why they used them, and what each herb does for yourself and your environment.

Soon I left with five bars of soap and an education on herbs and their properties. I was on a budget, and at $3 a bar, that’s all I could afford that day. I could have left with 15 bars from the other booth. But I wouldn’t have had near the sensual experience as I had with those five bars from Julia.

So here I am, 15 years later. All but one of the bars of soap have been used (and all lasted 4 times longer than chain store bought soaps). I saved the fifth bar, because the next time I attended the flea market, Julia was gone…her booth replaced by someone selling slightly damaged big-box store items. I saved the bar because I wanted to remember Julia and my experience at her booth that day. I wanted to recall my mini-lesson on soap making. I wanted to remember her joy, her passion.

I also saved the bar because I wanted to prove a point. Being an artisan myself, I know handmade items are far superior over the mass-produced things offered in the majority of our stores today. But I wanted to prove it to myself another way. So I saved the soap. It’s labeled “Workers Soap”. It still has its spicy scent to this day. After 15 years, I can open the drawer the purple-wrapped bar resides in and be taken back to my day at the flea market when I met Julia. In an instant, I can go back 15 years, and smile.

What a memory. What a product!

Being a craftsperson, the thought that I helped to support and hopefully further the dream of another hard-working original artist makes me feel really good. I’d like to believe that Julia’s future absence meant she moved onto bigger and better things…perhaps she eventually opened her own store, where quality, uniqueness, and creativity were rewarded, despite the fact a person could get mass-produced soap for a few less pennies in that monstrous building on the hill. I’d like to believe her business, her hard work, and her creativity helped to feed her children and helped to provide a roof over her family’s head.

In reality, Julia probably went out of business due to a lack of support. Her booth certainly wasn’t near as crowded as the other one on that fall day. In reality, most people probably chose to shop at the chain stores where they’d save a buck, but inevitably ended up with goods made by children and older, underpaid workers in sweatshops in Third World countries.

Chain retailers have expanded dramatically over the last twenty years. Home Depot and Lowe's, barely a blip on the radar screen in 1986, now control half of the hardware and building supply market. Barnes & Noble and Borders account for more than half of all bookstore sales. Every sector is now dominated by a couple of chains, and Wal-Mart dominates them all, capturing one of every five retail dollars we spend.

Julia’s not in that picture. She isn’t making soap for Wal-Mart. She couldn’t. It has to be made so cheaply, and in such large quantities, that it’s just not feasible.

As chain stores have exploded, thousands of independent retailers have lost their livelihoods and laid-off hundreds of thousands of employees. One study I read found that every new Wal-Mart store opened actually eliminates many more other retail jobs than it creates.

Studies have shown that on average, 65 to 85 cents of each dollar spent at a chain store leaves the local economy, with a large portion of that money being shifted overseas. The United States is buying $162 billion more from China than we are selling to it. A large percentage of these purchases are made by U.S. companies that build products in China and then ship them to the United States, like Wal-Mart's suppliers.

Despite a well-publicized "Made in the U.S.A." campaign, 85 percent of Wal-Mart’s items are made overseas, often in Third World sweatshops paying 13 to 35 cents per hour with up to 96-hour work weeks.

And that, my friends, leaves people like Julia out of a job, unable to feed her children, and unable to put a roof over her family’s head. Sure, she can get government assistance – food stamps, for instance. Which you and I are paying for via our tax dollars…which seem to keep rising year after year.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have some great-smelling, long-lasting, high-quality soap I can enjoy, than pay higher taxes due to individuals being put of out business by others making a choice to get more for less.

I’d rather have less stuff, with more meaning, which creates fond memories, and something cool to talk about. I’d rather have something different than the next 20,000 people I run into on the streets. I’d rather have something better quality, something filled with passion and creativity, something with a little love in it – which a machine in a factory just doesn’t possess.

So I ask myself this year, before the holiday shopping season begins, how can I achieve these goals? How can I contribute to a holiday with more meaning, and offer fond memories filled with love this season?

I can stay out of the chain stores, for one. They’re good at enticing…good at manipulation…and good at getting you to buy mass-market produced things - which won’t be appreciated - and will more than likely be thrown away or end up in a Goodwill store or garage sale in under six months. Think “disposable”.

I can seek out original, living, “real” artists online, or in my community at places and events which sell the handiwork of local artisans and craftspeople. By directly supporting the makers of the products I buy, I will be spending my money in an empowering way.

I can visit Etsy.Com. Etsy.com supports local economies by making it possible for artisans to make a living. They have a “Shop Local” link right on their front page – you type in your location, and it brings up artisans in your area.

Whether you uncover a piece of cool pottery, pet toys, handmade clothing, original paintings, herbal soap, baked goods, sculpture, home décor, or artisan jewelry, each artisan creation offers enduring value to be treasured. Each offers personality and uniqueness. Each offers a memory you’ll be able to recapture at any time – even 15 years later.

Jai Johnson is an independent jewelry designer, artist, and photographer living and working in Jackson, TN. Visit her main website at http://www.MicheleJanine.com

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