Nothing Says Happy Holidays Like 125 Tubas Playing Christmas Carols

tubachristmas-16_23095141963_o.jpgImagine dozens and dozens of tubas playing Christmas tunes in unison. It sounds a little weird and maybe a hoax, but Tuba Christmas is most definitely real. The free concert begins at 2 p.m. on Saturday, December 9 at the south end of the St. Louis Galleria near the entrance to Macy’s.

This year marks the 44th annual celebration of Christmas with tubas. The international event originated in 1974 when Harvey Phillips created it as a tribute to his tuba teacher, William Bell. The first Tuba Christmas was held in Rockafeller Plaza Ice Rink in New York City.

tubachristmas-24_23639578611_o.jpgNowadays, you’ll find Tuba Christmas concerts in nearly every big city and even some small ones.

Tuba players are a different breed. The instrument requires a bit of strength to hold upright, and it takes quite a bit of wind power to generate the notes. It’s not a dainty instrument like a piccolo. Nevertheless, many St. Louisans play the tuba, as is evident at Tuba Christmas, where you’ll see nearly 125 tubaists honking out “Silent Night,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and other favorites.

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Hiram Martin at Tuba Christmas.

One local tuba player who participates in the event began playing the instrument at a young age. Hiram Martin is a retired area high school bandleader who loves golf, fishing and his tuba.

“I love playing the bass notes!” Martin said. He started out on a much smaller instrument in grade school, the violin. He also plays a bit of piano.

“My band instructor encouraged me to take up the tuba,” Martin said. “One reason was there weren’t many kids interested in it, so there wouldn’t be much competition!”

That’s when he hoisted the 30-lb. beast of an instrument for the first time. He was hooked, and has played it ever since. When Tuba Christmas comes around each year, Martin and thousands of other tuba players around the world will join together for their annual holiday extravaganza.

For more information, visit: www.tubachristmas.com.

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Reader’s Delight! Jewish Book Festival Kicks Off November 5

Adreon-2 copyCool fall weather is a clear signal to go indoors and do indoorsy stuff—like reading a good book. If you’re looking for a great read, and some insight from the author him or herself, the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival will start on November 5.

The annual event has been introducing readers to noted Jewish authors for nearly forty years. All lectures by participating authors will be held in the heart of St. Louis County at the Jewish Community Center at 2 Millstone Campus Drive.

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Senator Barbara Boxer.

This year’s festival kicks off with Senator Barbara Boxer of California. Sen. Boxer will talk about her new memoir, The Art of Tough, which details her career.

On Monday, Nov. 6, local authors will be featured, including Korean War veteran Leonard Adreon. As a Marine corpsman, Adreon bore witness to the brutal horrors of war, detailed in his new book Hilltop Doc.

Another local author, Ron Kaplan, will discuss his book on “Hammerin” Hank Greenberg, one of three Jewish sluggers who have hit home runs in a World Series game. Trivia buffs—can you name the other three? See the end of this article to find out if you were correct.

Sepinwall-2 copy.jpgOn Sunday, Nov. 11, it’s TV Time with critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoiller Seitz, who will discuss their book entitled simply TV, chronicling vintage classics to modern masterpieces.

Jeff Rossen from The Today Show will appear on Saturday, Nov. 18 to discuss his new book Rossen to the Rescue.

Tickets to the festival and a complete schedule are available online at the Jewish Book Festival website. You can purchase tickets for individual lectures (most are about $20) or a complete festival Premier Pass for $99.

And for the sports trivia experts–the answer to the World Series home run derby, the names of the other three Jewish major leaguers to hit home runs in the series are:

  • Alex Bregman of the Houston Astros
  • Joc Pederson of the L.A. Dodgers
  • (St. Louisan) Ken Holtzman of the Oakland Athletics

Bregman and Pederson hit their first homers in the first two games of the 2017 World Series, followed up by one each in game four (both hit in the 9th inning).

Rx to relieve stress: Pet a cat at Mauhaus

DSC00678.JPGThere are any number of ways to reduce stress in your life. Yoga, meditation and exercise are just a few.

Or you can pet a cat.

The New York Times, Social Work Today and WebMD.com have all reported in the past about the benefits of interacting with felines. Stroking a cat’s back will chill you out since the act produces oxytocin, a hormone that reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The cat enjoys it, too.

So what to do if you’re full of stress but don’t own a cat? Maybe you’re a flight attendant or a CIA operative and thus away from home for days or weeks on end. After all, spies presumably face stress.

DSC00673.JPGMy advice is to head to Maplewood and Mauhaus Cat Cafe and Lounge at 3101 Sutton Boulevard. It’s basically a coffee shop—with cats. There are two staff cats, Lorelai and Taylor, and another dozen who are available for adoption. The cost to enjoy the company of the Mauhaus cats is reasonable, and far less than therapy.

The reservation fee is $10 per person for one hour in the lounge. It helps Mauhaus cover the cost of maintaining the cat lounge and caring for the cats. That fee also entitles you to a free drink and 20% off any food or additional beverages purchased.

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Mauhaus Cat Cafe owners Ben Triola and Dana Huth.

Mauhaus requires visitors to sign a release form, and they have a few rules. Most are geared toward protecting the cats. You may not pick up a cat or chase one. It’s ok to pet a cat, sleeping or awake, but it’s not cool to wake a cat up to engage it in play. And climbing on the walls is forbidden. To clarify, that rule is only for humans.

When I visited Mauhaus, about half the cats were napping, the others doing normal cat activities, like preening and stretching. Cheech, a skinny beige tabby, stretched out in the front window on his back and allowed a visitor to stroke his head. He seemed pretty relaxed, as did the gentleman doing the petting.

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Cheech.

Such is the attraction of a cat café. Being around self-confident animals seems to chill out the visitors. The space is a bit small, so Mauhaus limits the number of people in the café to 20 at any given time. You can reserve an hour visit in advance. Mauhaus also is available for parties or special events—again limited to 20 people.

And if you are smitten with one of the visiting cats from Stray Haven Rescue, they are all available for adoption. They are current on shots, and have been spayed or neutered, and microchipped.

For more information, visit mauhauscafe.com.

Trains, Jazz, Blues: Old Webster Festival Has It All

21573150885_7ae72820da_o.jpgOne of the more unusual aspects of the Old Webster Jazz & Blues Festival has got to be the trains.

Amtrak passenger trains—and freight trains—chug through Webster Groves with some regularity. The tracks are mere feet from the back of the stages, but neither the performers nor the audience seem to mind. It’s just another quirk of this longstanding late summer music festival.

On Saturday, September 16, Old Webster Groves will be hosting the festival for the 18th year. The line-up features some of the best local jazz, blues, funk, rock, and soul musicians.

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Miss Jubilee and the Humdingers.

Perennial favorite Miss Jubilee and the Humdingers will play at 1:20 p.m. on the Webster University Stage on Gore Avenue. The Grooveliners, Marquise Knox and the Webster University Faculty Band follow.

“Our fans have been vocal about their favorite performers from previous years,” said Brian Ward, musical director for the festival.“We’re bringing a few back, showcasing some new acts, and giving an authentic sample of our region’s original musical artform.

“We’ll finish with one of our favorite party bands: The Funky Butt Brass Band,” Ward said.

The festival offers two stages, just a block apart. That’s enough separation to avoid noise bleed. It also gives the audience a chance to choose the acts that appeal most to them.

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CarolBeth True will offer tips to music students at a free workshop preceding this year’s festival.

Another feature of this year’s festival is unique: There will be a free music workshop from 9 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. at the Webster Groves Concert Hall, 103 E. Lockwood Ave. Students of all ages will receive instruction and musical inspiration from three Webster Groves music scholars: Willem von Hombracht, CarolBeth True and Debbie Lennon.

Gesher Music Festival Opens Season #7 With ‘War & Peace’ Theme

GF_081516_016One of St. Louis County’s most unique music festivals returns this week for its seventh season. The Gesher Music Festival brings professional musicians to St. Louis to perform chamber music with a Jewish inflection.

The theme of the Gesher 2017 is “War & Peace” and explores music and stories that reflect the Jewish experience. It also illuminates our common humanity that never wavers, even in times of conflict.

In “Prayers for Peace” Gesher tells the painful stories of war and conflict through music. It will be held Saturday, August 19, at the 560 Music Center in University City. On Sunday, August 20, “Transcending Borders” will be held at the Jewish Community Center’s Wool Studio Theatre at 2 Millstone Campus Dr.

The Arts Blog asked Gesher organizers if Gesher is unique in its mission in scope. The answer is that Gesher is a one-of-a-kind music festival. Most festivals with a Jewish theme tend to offer primarily Klezmer or Jewish folk music rather than classical chamber music.

GF_081516_232Gesher has been a definite success, with audiences growing substantially through its seven-year history.

“We have developed quite a strong following and have very large crowds at our primary events,” said Marla Stoker from Marquee Media.

The War & Peace theme was part of Gesher’s artistic vision of remembering history, she said.

“The first year it was “Music of the Degenerates” in keeping with the Missouri History Museum exhibit of Propaganda and Degenerate Art in Nazi Germany. Last year, we took our theme from the “Route 66” exhibit with our “American Dreams” programs featuring music of American immigrants. This year’s theme of “War & Peace” is built on the museum’s World War I exhibit.”

GF_081516_264The 2017 Gesher festival has two local connections: Eva Kozma, assistant principal second violin from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and Peter Myers, cellist, son of Dana Myers, first violin SLSO and Timothy Myers, Principal Trumpet.

More information on Gesher is available at www.geshermusicfestival.org.

This Big Band Gets Its Kicks On Route 66

One of the toughest challenges for any band is playing in unison. If one band member gets out of sync, it will throw off the entire performance. It’s not that easy to accomplish this basic stagecraft, with all the distractions like crowd noise, clinking glasses, maybe a drummer with a hangover.

If you go to a Route 66 Jazz Orchestra performance, you’re unlikely to hear a single glitch. That’s because this group, which specializes in big band, swing and jazz, puts a high premium on practice.

BillSimpsonThe Route 66 Jazz Orchestra performs eight times a year, but the nonprofit group rehearses once a week in Mehlville, from August thru June. The band spends a lot of time trying to get the songs just right; hence, the dutiful focus on practice. Their effort pays off, because the band consistently nails challenging arrangements.

They certainly don’t do it for the money, unless you consider a $46 Christmas “bonus” adequate compensation. That’s roughly the amount of the checks the orchestra’s members receive from director Bob Boedges at year-end.

“It’s to reimburse them for their gas,” Boedges said, laughing. “They give up one night a week to practice, and they need to because this music is so darn difficult.”

The Route 66 Jazz Orchestra has 22 members, including Boedges and three top notch vocalists. Many have day jobs unrelated to music, while others work as professionals in the industry, but they all have a passion for jazz. They range in age from 20 to 84.

BobBoedgesHow the band came into being is a story that began in 1969. Dr. Ron Stillwell started a house band at Meramec Community College. It was known as the Meramec Jazz Lab Band and consisted of both students and volunteer members of the community.

In 2012, the St. Louis Community College lost funding for music programs and dropped the band—on very short notice. That meant no pay for the director, no rehearsal space and no access to the college’s music library.

By this time, the band was under the direction of Boedges, who took over from previous director Bob Waggoner in 2005. The band re-formed as an independent not-for-profit organization and has emerged as one of the top big bands in the region.

Usually, at the end of a Route 66 Jazz Orchestra show, Boedges thanks the audience for coming and the orchestra for playing. He’ll say: “We do this because we love it and nobody gets paid.”

CraigToddThe sentiment is true but it’s a rehearsed shtick. The orchestra members hear these words and feign surprise and disgust, saying “WHAT—no pay!?!?” “We’re not going to play for nothing!!”

But, except for carfare, they do and the St. Louis music scene is richer for it.

The next performance of the Route 66 Jazz Orchestra is at 7 p.m. on Saturday, August 26 at the Kirkwood Park Amphitheater as part of their Summer Concert Series.

For more information visit route66jazz.com.

 

Top Notch Violins provide instruments for any budget and skill level

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Top Notch Violins owners Ted Moniak, Stephen Nowels, and Chris Clark.

Bowstring musical instruments are considered the most difficult to play. That hasn’t stopped many new students from taking up the violin. It remains the fifth most popular musical instrument that people play, behind the piano, guitar, drums and flute.

In St. Louis County, the go-to shop for new and used violins, either for sale or rent, is Top Notch Violins at 3109 Sutton Blvd. in Maplewood. Top Notch is one of the independent shops along Sutton that has made Maplewood a hotbed of creative entrepreneurship. A couple of doors down from Top Notch is region’s one and only cat café.

Top Notch has only been in business for just four years, but it has gained a reputation for customer service and quality. They also offer expert craftsmanship in repairs and restoration.

The secret to their success is that the trio of Top Notch partners—master craftsman Ted Moniak, sales guru Stephen Nowels, and operations/logistics chief Chris Clark—love what they do.

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Stephen Nowels and Chris Clark inspect an instrument.

All three grew up in the St. Louis area. Their enthusiasm for music and stringed instruments is infectious, and they make a special effort to educate customers, Clark said.

“We begin educating our clientele when they walk in the door,” he said. “Most of them don’t have a lot of experience with violins. They can be intimidated, so we try to deflate that, by explaining the difference between a $9,000 instrument and a $900 instrument.”

Most new violin players don’t need to spend thousands of dollars, Nowels said. Entry-level instruments run between $300 and $500. Rentals are even more affordable, at $170 per year. And three years of rent can be applied directly to the purchase of the rental instrument.

The inventory at Top Notch includes much higher-end instruments as well. The objective is to match the customer with the right instrument.

“Our niche is our relationship with teachers,” Nowels said. “There are a lot of people doing it for the love of doing it, there are teachers we have longstanding relationships with, and we help them and their students.”

In addition to violins, Top Notch sells and services violas, cellos and double basses. In 2018, they also plan to begin manufacturing instruments, in their Maplewood facility. That will be sweet music to violin students in St. Louis County.

Creve Coeur Lake Park is an urban oasis with hiking, kayaking and more

DSC00058You really want to get out in the fresh air, but the extreme July heat drove you indoors, right?

Well, here’s a secret—there’s a spot in St. Louis County where you can sit high on a bluff, in the shade, and look out over a magnificent lake view. Just head over to the Greensfelder Shelter just north of Dorsett Road, on Marine Avenue at Creve Coeur Park.

The 2,145-acre park features Missouri’s largest natural lake, archery, athletic fields, hiking trails and even a disc (Frisbee) golf course. Just behind the disc course is a traditional golf course, Crystal Springs Quarry.

Of course, the main attraction at Creve Coeur Park is Creve Coeur Lake. It’s ideal for small sailboats, like Hobie cats or kayaks. In fact, you can rent a kayak or paddleboard for a nominal fee of $10 for the first hour and $5 for each additional hour. Canoes are also available for rent for $15 for the first hour and $5 for each additional hour.

If boating isn’t your cup of tea, the boat rental facility on Marine Avenue also offers bikes and quadricycles for rent. Rentals are available from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day.

DSC00050This being St. Louis County, one of the quirks of Creve Coeur Park is that it isn’t actually IN Creve Coeur. This is Maryland Heights. And if you go exploring the park, don’t believe everything you read. That includes the sign that informs us that a broken-hearted Indian girl was the inspiration for the French phrase Creve Coeur (broken heart). The story suggests that Dripping Springs in the park was the site of her tragic death.

It’s a poignant story, but likely an old wive’s tale. Park historians say that Anglo settlers to St. Louis County never really found out why French settlers used the expression. There actually is an old French breed of chicken known as Crevecoeur (with green-black feathers).

DSC00055Creve Coeur Lake began as a large resort. Hotels, a cable car, and even an amusement park once sat nearby. Following the 1904 World’s Fair, a 255-foot observation tower at Forest Park was moved to Creve Coeur Lake. The park took a turn for the worse in the 1920s when lakefront saloons and nightclubs became gangster hideouts.

Then, Mother Nature took a turn in messing up the park. Between 1950 and 1955, the lake nearly dried up. Fortunately, the Missouri River eventually rose and backed up into the lake. That refilled it AND restocked it with fish.

The ensuing years have seen efforts by St. Louis County to improve the lake, including parking facilities, boat ramps and amenities. Today, it remains one of the county’s most popular parks, with bicyclists, skaters, boaters and walkers.

Vintage Model Trains Chug Around The Big Bend Railroad Club

X38A9055Drive through the especially curvy, bendy section of Big Bend Blvd. in Webster Groves just west of Elm and you’ll pass an unassuming railroad terminal. The Webster Groves depot opened for business in 1910. Passenger service to the depot stopped in 1968, although passenger and freight trains still run along the tracks outside the station.

What makes the building truly unique is what is inside the depot. Since 1938, the building has been home to the Big Bend Railroad Club. Step inside and you’ll see an amazing layout—a dream come true for any model railroad enthusiast.

Winding through the former waiting room is a 60-foot-long O-scale 2-rail model railroad. It’s similar to the Lionel O-scale, but Lionel trains use a center rail for power and run on AC voltage. The trains at the Big Bend Railroad Club use DC voltage and run on scale track.

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Big Bend Railroad Club members Ken Rimmel, Rich Melka, Bob O’Neill and Jerry Affeldt.

The entire layout covers 800 feet of mainline track. Four trains and two yard operations can run simultaneously. The design is known as point-to-point. That means a train will run from one defined location to another. That is a bit different from the loop design you’ll see in many basement setups.

The Big Bend Railroad Club’s train layout also includes two major terminals. They are the Springfield and the Ozark, with an intermediate stop. This mirrors the actual Springfield and Ozark terminals that once were key stops along the Springfield & Southern Railway.

X38A9064You can view the vintage model trains running at the old Webster Groves depot at 8833 Big Bend Blvd. from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on the first Tuesday of every month. There’s no set fee to enter, but a door donation helps defray operating costs. The depot is open every Tuesday night for maintenance, but the trains don’t run those nights.

On any given Tuesday evening, you’re likely to see members of the club checking track, making sure cars are operating correctly and generally having a good time.

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Club secretary Ken Rimmel with a heavyweight passenger car.

Club secretary and unofficial historian Ken Rimmel said even though the Big Bend Railroad Club isn’t the oldest in the U.S., the Webster Groves location was their first and only home.

“Within a few years of our starting, a friend of a father of our first club president worked for the Frisco Railroad, and on a handshake deal we’ve been here ever since,” Rimmel said.

It was originally called the Model Railroad Club of Webster Groves, but changed to Big Bend Railroad Club after moving into the depot. In 1950, the club became a non-profit organization.

The building itself is a relic of a bygone era, and it very nearly disappeared in 1994. That’s when the Frisco Railroad and its successor, Burlington Northern Railroad, no longer had a signal maintenance facility in the east half of the building. It also meant a wrecking ball had its sights on the depot. The Big Bend Railroad Club purchased the building from the railroad and obtained a long-term lease on the land.

In the process, the club ensured a vintage model railroad would continue to chug around the track inside an old rail terminal for years to come.

For more information about the Big Bend Railroad Club, visit their website at www.bigbendrrclub.org.

Premium All-Natural Soap With A Noble Mission At sammysoap

Wide World of Soaps
Wide world of soaps at sammysoap.

Here’s a test: Go to your bathroom and look at the label of the soap you’re using.

It may well have stearic acid, sodium stearate, maltol and tetrasodium etidronate. Now, investigate a little further into the properties of these common ingredients of a popular soap brand. The summary reads “This ingredient does not appear to have any beneficial properties for your skin.”

Many soaps are loaded with synthetic ingredients but they smell pretty good, they are readily available and are inexpensive. These soaps will clean dirt off of your hands and face, but that’s about it.

If you want soap that contains all-natural emollients and essential oils along with the standard base ingredient (glycerine), you will need to head over to sammysoap at 123 W. Argonne Drive in Kirkwood. The staple at sammysoap—bar soap—are vegan and do not have any artificial dyes, fillers or synthetics.

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Walk in to sammysoap (just across the street from the Kirkwood Amtrak station) and you’ll be enveloped in an intoxicating blend of aromas. They are coming at you from the wide array of soaps on display. You may also catch a waft of soap brewing in the sammysoap factory in the back of the building.

There’s one more thing about sammysoap that sets it apart. This is a business with a clear and noble mission. sammysoap is a job creation enterprise. sammysoap employees are adults with intellectual disabilities.

sammysoap was created by Karen Copeland and Beth Forsee. Copeland’s son Sam is the namesake of the brand. After Sam graduated from high school, his developmental disability made him ineligible for competitive employment. By the time he turned 21, he WAS eligible for adult day care, in an Alzheimer’s unit. It lacked much in the way of stimulation, and Sam was bored to tears. He wanted to work and had the ability to work. There just weren’t any jobs available other than low-paying “slop-and-mop” gigs where adults like Sam often find themselves.

Karen Copeland of Sammysoap
Karen Copeland in the sammysoap factory with a double boiler.

Karen Copeland figured there must be a better way. It helped that she had retail experience and knowledge of the disability services industry. She’s also a natural problem-solver. One thing she had little knowledge of was soap.

“I had to come up with an idea,” she said. “That was all-natural soap. I thought if I don’t know anything about this great alternative to what’s in the big boxes, nobody else does either. So we started making cold-processed soap at the house, my kids called it ‘Breaking Bad soap.’”

Beth Forsee came on board, along with another partner Joe Fischer, and they were off and running. They opened the store in Kirkwood in November 2014, and have been a must-stop for shoppers from day one.

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Beth Forsee and Karen Copeland.

The soap-makers in the sammysoap factory share Sam’s attributes—a disability and a desire to be productive in a world where there are few available jobs. sammysoap is not a non-profit, it is not a sheltered workshop and it is not a readiness program. The company is not funded by any state or federal program. It does offer a fair wage for anyone willing to work. And it smells really good.

That’s not all. The products at sammysoap are good for you. The distinct aroma of the bars (ranging from eucalyptus to cinnamon spice to chocolate, to name a few) can actually calm you down or improve your mood. The smell of chocolate can perk you up if you’re down in the dumps. If you have a burn or rash, oatmeal provides a natural antihistamine. Each soap at sammysoap has a purpose to match its smell. The commercial soap you get at the grocery may smell good, but it’s probably filled with chemicals and additives with few health benefits.

The soap at sammysoap is different.

“It’s really good for you,” Copeland said. “The ingredients we use are the basis for all pharmacology. It’s medicine for your skin.”

Dog Soap.JPGIf you have a group interested in the soapmaking process, sammysoap offers tours of the factory. There’s no real secret to the basic formula. Soapmaking hasn’t changed much for centuries.

“We use a cold process to create a chemical reaction,” Copeland said. “It starts with a double boiler, because some emollients will go solid at cool temperature so we have to heat them enough to mix them. We start with lye and oil and they start a reaction, a process that makes glycerine and that’s soap.

“It’s kind of like cooking, you start experimenting, you have the pantry, it’s all about having the pantry, but in our case it’s a very expensive pantry. [Copeland held up a quart bottle of natural oil.] A bottle like this can cost $5,000.”

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Inside the sammysoap store in downtown Kirkwood.

A visit to the sammysoap store offers a unique and happy sensory experience. There’s the aroma, which hits you as soon as you walk in. It’s intense, but in a good way. Then there’s the positive vibe from the mission of the store—to provide good jobs for hardworking people who don’t have too many good options. The employees are having a good time and making a high-quality product. And the building itself is something of a curiosity. It once served as the Kirkwood fire station and there are remnants of its past all around.

The location itself is a perfect fit, in a shopping district where walk-ins are common. It’s also helpful for sammysoap employees, because the factory is easy to reach, with access to public transportation. The enterprise is a formula for success. Copeland boiled it down to a few simple reasons.

“Everybody loves the soap, it’s fun, it’s good for you, and it fulfills a social need.”

For more information about sammysoap, visit their website at www.sammysoap.com.