When you walk into The Soap Chest, you’re enveloped by such a pleasing bouquet of aromas that you’d think you’re in a summer garden, surrounded by lavender, rosemary, mint, sage, honeysuckle and pine. Your senses unfurl and it’s time to explore all the treasures in this near-magical downtown Camas soapery.
Nestled in its own building on 521 NE Everett Street, the business blossomed out of Gail Horn’s Christmas challenge: make homemade gifts for everyone. Horn decided on all-natural soap, since her family suffered from sensitive skin. “We made three different batches and we packaged it up. My husband made cute little wooden boxes and we gave it to everybody for Christmas, and they loved it,” recalls Horn.
That was in 1999, when Horn was a stay-at-home mom with small children. “I was looking for something I could maybe do on the side at home,” she explains. Horn gave her sudsy hobby a name: The Soap Chest, inspired by the idea of a “hope chest,” where a bride keeps the items she’ll use in her new household. Horn filled a quilt-lined trunk with her soaps, which sold like hotcakes at a holiday craft fair in Washougal. She attended more craft fairs and farmers markets and began taking mail orders, eventually adding wholesale clients and online sales.
The Soap Chest was outgrowing the available space at home, and Horn began dreaming of a brick-and-mortar store in downtown Camas. “I just thought, how fun would that be, to go in the morning, get my coffee, and open up my little shop!” However, lease rates were high. In 2014, she saw an empty lot for sale and suggested to her husband that it might make better economic sense to own a building with a customized shop and rent out the rest. They crunched the numbers and decided it could work. “This dream just went POW, you know?”
Today, the contemporary gray-and-white building is one of downtown Camas’ gems. Inside, Horn has created artful and inviting displays, like the trio of upturned sinks that showcase her homemade soaps. The honey-hued wood floors and shelving add warmth, and large windows bring in plenty of light. You’ll want to linger a while, smelling everything: hand and lip balms, sugar scrubs, spritzers, bath bombs, laundry soap, lotions, and other “scentsory” treats.
Horn still gets a thrill out of whipping up each batch of soap. “When I’m stirring it, and before I add any color or fragrance or anything, I just love that aroma and the warmth of it,” she says. She enjoys dreaming up new fragrance combinations—but she does have favorites: Milk & Honey (with local goat’s milk and honey), Flower Child (a heady mix of lavender and patchouli), and Sun River Sage (an invigorating combination of sage, pine and fir, inspired by family vacations in Sun River). Horn is also proud of Camas Lily—a subtle floral essence blended with pine, reminiscent of the lily meadows above Lacamas Creek.
In her studio, you’re likely to see essential oils, bags of dried lavender or calendula blossoms, or powdered citrus. Horn sources locally whenever possible—often from her own garden. You’ll also see shelves of colorful soap ready to be cut into bars and shipped to wholesale clients—including New Seasons Market, Hood River Lavender Farm, Seattle’s Indi Chocolate, Camas Produce, and the Camas Farmers Market. She gets a kick out of creating specialty soaps for niche retailers, like Indi Chocolate’s Chocolate Mint, Chocolate Orange, and Chocolate Chai. The majority of sales, however, come through the shop, and Horn has several enthusiastic customers who only use Soap Chest products. “When they walk in the door and they go, ‘We need to get some more soap because we’re almost out! We love your soap, we’re so glad you’re here!’ It just makes my day,” enthuses Horn.
Horn’s success may seem like good fortune, but it’s the result of tireless hard work. She calls herself a dyed-in-the-wool do-it-yourselfer. “I do all my marketing. I do my accounting. I manage the building. I do all my sales. I do all my packaging. I do all the making—which is the main thing, the making!” Horn’s husband designed the logo and creates the labeling. When her kids were younger, they often pitched in (and even now, she uses her son’s home-brewed ale in her Amber Ale soap).
Horn’s future also looks bubbly, as Camas continues to expand and welcome new businesses. “We’re the Pearl of Camas, just north of downtown,” she jokes, referring to Portland’s famed Pearl District. The Soap Chest is definitely poised for growth, and Horn is always ready for new wholesale opportunities. “I’m looking at controlled growth, every year,” she says. Most days, you can find Horn in her studio, creating batch after batch of handmade botanical soap. “I get to really do my dream of coming down in the morning, having my coffee, and opening my shop,” she beams.