Kirsten Connor: Flourishing in White River Junction VT
From online to the bricks and mortar of Main Street . . .
Kirsten Connor left New York for Woodstock VT and started making natural soaps more than 15 years ago. Then balms, and scrubs, and lotions. She set up her own retail shop--Thistle Bath and Body--and grew her dream to encompass wholesale distribution, placing her products in stores and food co-ops throughout New England, including the holy grail of marketing and sales, Whole Foods. She met and married Vermonter (born and raised in Chelsea and Tunbridge) Darren McCullough. If her product had been baby food, her story would read like the plot of the 1987 movie, Baby Boom, starring Diane Keaton, a film that reinforced the notion that Vermont is indeed the place to live the very good life.
Four years ago, Connor hit the reset button, pulled her products from Whole Foods, and began to rethink her business. While she had already been using natural ingredients, she was determined to make her products even more human- and environmentally-friendly. She consulted an herbalist, researched on her own, and reformulated everything in her product line. Her customers, who at this point were purchasing her products through her online site, wanted more. In response to their demands, Connor added shampoos and hair products.
Last October, Connor brought Flourish Organic Hair and Skin Care to White River Junction, but no one knew it. Tucked behind an upholstery shop on Main Street with the only entrance from the back of the Newberry Market, Flourish was practically invisible. When the upholstery business vacated the premises, Connor expanded into the empty storefront, leaving her original space to serve as the production "kitchen." Flourish now has a front door, and large windows, right on Main Street.
Connor says that she sources local ingredients whenever possible. She grows her own herbs and makes use of Vermont wildflowers. Lavender comes from France or Spain--"you can't grow enough of it here"--and olive oil, well . . . as even the most ardent locavore will tell you, is simply not a New England product.
The retail space is filled with colorfully packaged items; the vast majority are Connor's own although there is a shelf for a small collection of products manufactured elsewhere, including organic makeup. All of the Flourish products come in glass containers and there is a refill bar, which is just what it sounds like. There is also a stylish and functional sink, important, Connor stresses, for customers who want to soap up their hands and get a literal feel for the products.
Connor has joined a growing number of businesses in White River Junction that are owned and run by women. (Her husband is a business partner.) We listed them off the top of our heads and surely did not count them all: Tip Top Café, Oodles, Scavenger Gallery, Revolution, Valley Flower, and more recently, the Fat Hat Clothing Company, and Post. There's Open Door, the Engine Room enterprises, and the Center for Cartoon Studies. (Feel free to list those we have inadvertently left out in the comments below.) Female-owned businesses are a national (and international) trend, comprising 29% of all American businesses; the numbers are rapidly growing and challenges remain, says an article from The Atlantic. Recently the Hartford Chamber of Commerce held a breakfast meeting called Women in Business: Confronting the Challenges and Defining Success, at The Engine Room in White River Junction. 85 women — and a handful of men — attended. Hat tip to the Chamber for having its fingers on this particular pulse.
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Susan B. Apel, writer, ArtfulEdge