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    Shop fills fragrant niche with handmade soaps

    The addition of handmade olive oil soaps is one of several changes the Sea Horse owners have made since taking over the 67-year-old gift shop in Tarpon Springs.

    By JANEL STEPHENS

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 2, 2001


    TARPON SPRINGS -- The scent greets you at the door before the store clerk says, "Hello."

    It is a mixture of 13 fragrances from soap bars stacked in baskets on the counter of the Sea Horse gift shop on the Sponge Docks. The aroma of citrus, lavender and patchouli soap are just one way the metaphysical-themed store reaches out to passers-by.

    "We wanted to stand out," said Eleni Simeon-Oakley, business owner of the Sea Horse. She and her husband, Russell, painted the storefront lime green last summer to give the 67-year-old shop a new look.

    "We're always changing," said Russell Simeon-Oakley. "We painted it bright-green because it works during the daytime as well as the night."

    Mrs. Simeon-Oakley, 41, became the owner of Sea Horse gift shop when her mother, Kathryn, retired from running the family business in May 1999. Since then, she has remodeled the store. She replaced the eyes that adorned the walls to ward off evil with bookshelves of angels, incense and lucky dolls.

    Paintings by the Simeon-Oakleys and some Greek artifacts decorate the walls. Some of the items have become a part of the family's legacy and are no longer for sale.

    But the soaps are.

    The Simeon-Oakleys added their handmade soaps to the shop last year. The couple agreed that the Greek soap sold in the shop since the 1970s no longer met with their standards of quality.

    "It was a really inexpensive soap," Simeon-Oakley said. "People said they liked it, but I didn't, and I had to wonder if they were buying it because they liked it or because it was from Greece and inexpensive."

    When the Simeon-Oakleys began shopping for soaps in the market, they noticed that several of the soaps they considered purchasing contained chemicals that were harsh to the skin.

    "We couldn't find a soap that was really nice, so we decided the only way to get nice soap was to make it ourselves," Simeon-Oakley said.

    Because the Simeon-Oakleys had no previous soapmaking experience, they conducted research on the Internet and talked with people who made soap for a living. They began experimenting with soap by making small batches. A year passed before they devised a formula that contained natural herbs and oil.

    "Because olive oil is so temperamental, (manufacturers) put stabilizers in them, and this is what irritates the skin," Simeon-Oakley said. "We spent a good year trying to make soap without putting any additives in it."

    The Simeon-Oakleys' soap consists of Greek olive oil, aromatherapy oils, flowers and herbs. The couple said they use olive oil as the base of their soap because the oil is commonly used as a skin moisturizer in Greece and other Mediterranean countries.

    "It's not greasy, and it won't clog your skin like you think," Mrs. Simeon-Oakley said. "The good thing about it is that it not only adds moisture, but it helps seal in the moisture you already have."

    The couple don't make soap every day, but when they do, it is in batches of up to 100 pounds per fragrance.

    The soap is made with distilled water that is boiled at 300 degrees Fahrenheit. The water is left to cool over night to 82.5 degrees, and then the oil is added to the mixture in a stainless steel cauldron. The oil and water is stirred for two hours or until blended well. Flowers, herbs, and dried fruit are added to the mixture. The soap mixture is poured into pans 2 feet long and 6 inches deep, then left to set for six days.

    Some of the shop's soap fragrances include peppermint, tangerine, lemon, oatmeal, patchouli, lavender and orange/clove.

    "This is the third time I've been here," said Sea Horse customer Jenny Curtis of Brandon. "Every time I have relatives come and visit, I bring them here. It's so unique. I haven't found stores anywhere like this."

    The Simeon-Oakleys' plan to expand their soap business in the middle of this month to include a stand at the Citrus Park Town Center in Hillsborough County. They have already increased their orders from their Web site, http://www.getaguru.com, over the past few months.

    "I've got a file folder full of notes people send us via e-mail and tell us how much they love the soap," Mrs. Simeon-Oakley said.

    Since starting to make the soap, the couple think the Sea Horse might have found a niche.

    "Most of our business is from repeat business," Simeon-Oakley said. "There is so much of it, and it's because we make good products. When you make a really good, honest product that works, the rest of the business just takes care of itself."

    - Staff writer Janel Stephens can be reached at (727) 445-4243.

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