Soap Shop Owner Expands Business, Hopes To Bring New Life To City

By Kim Leonard The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet the Pittsburgh area entrepreneur who is doing her part to help lift up fellow small business owners. As the organizer of the "Small Business Association of New Kensington," soap shop owner Autumn Walker hopes to spark more life into the vacancy-plagued downtown area.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Autumn Walker added a cosmetics line this month to her bath products business in the former G.C. Murphy store in New Kensington.

But makeup is only part of the makeover Walker is looking for.

It is part of her ongoing efforts to put a better face on the city's business district.

Walker, who owns the BoHo Bath & Bubbles by Apothecary Soap Co., discovered New Kensington seven years ago through an online real estate listing.

She is organizing a small-business owners group -- the Small Business Association of New Kensington -- to solve problems and spark more life into the vacancy-plagued downtown.

Walker, 34, said she sees progress.

"Over the last two years, we've had a net growth of about 14 businesses down here -- Fifth (Avenue), Fourth and probably from 11th Street down to Eighth. Just downtown," she said.

Walker attributed much of the renewed interest to the occasional Better Block festivals with vendors held in recent years. In all, she said, about 21 businesses opened downtown during the past two years and 14 remain.

Building values in the area are ideal for entrepreneurs, she said, so, "You can get in at the bottom level and help (the area) rise."

Modfinish shop owner Corey Pistininzi and Knead Community Cafe manager Chanda Moyes were among about eight business owners at February's initial meeting of the small-business association.

"It's a start," Pistininzi said, although insight from more merchants is needed. He suggested at the meeting that downtown building owners do more with lighting.

Modfinish, a kitchen and bath fixtures and decor business, keeps the energy-efficient LED bulbs of its gooseneck-style exterior lamps and lights inside its Fifth Avenue storefront on all night, Pistininzi said.

While the city has nice streetlights, he said, the added illumination brightens up the area. When owners keep buildings dark and curtains closed, Pistininzi said, "It looks like everything is essentially boarded up, when it's not."

Moyes said she hopes the business group Walker started spurs more progress in the city, which offers more than meets the eye. "It was nice to know that there are more new businesses, and, in the next year or two, I think we are going to see a spark here," she said.

The Knead cafe opened last month with a pay-what-you-can concept in a former Sons of Italy building on Barnes Street. Walker's soap and cosmetics shop is "something different, something eclectic," Moyes said. "I'm hoping we get more businesses like that."

Walker, an Arizona native, started making soaps about 10 years ago for family members with skin conditions who had trouble using store-bought brands.

"I've had the same soap recipe for about six years, and I use different fragrances and colorings," she said, explaining she uses ingredients such as honey in some soaps and coconut, palm, castor and olive oil in others.

But no animal products.

As a "military brat" she moved around, and relocated from Florida to New Kensington in 2010. She and her fiance, Dave McGuire, are investing in the city, she said.

While visiting her mother in West Virginia, they saw a Craigslist ad for a New Kensington building.

They ended up buying the former Altmeyer's building on Fourth Avenue, then the Murphy's building, she said, and her store opened in 2015. McGuire, whose profession is electronics design, runs the Large Scale Systems Museum on Fourth Avenue that displays vintage computers.

Whimsical product line Walker's 40 varieties of soaps come in scents such as Chill Pill (peppermint and spearmint), Bubbly (pink champagne and fruit punch), Lightly Twisted (cotton candy, vanilla and musk) and Haulin' Oats (oatmeal, goats' milk and honey). They sell for $6.50, or four for $22.

Special collections include Wizzarding World, with a vanilla-scented Sorting Bath bath bomb; and Brewery, with Smooth Hoperator soap made with Penn Brewery's Penn Pilsner and scented with honey.

Her new Eye Candy cosmetics include single powdered eye shadows for $6, powdered foundations for $18 and a $4 primer made with zinc oxide and glycerine.

Employee Madisyn Tassone said she suggested Walker try making cosmetics because makeup shopping in the New Kensington area is mostly limited to supermarkets, discount stores and drugstores.

There's a lot of interest in products made without animal testing, she said, and, "I feel like if they were made aware that there's an alternative locally, then people would go for that."

Walker sells a variety of other products online and in her store, ranging from men's mustache wax and beard oil to scoop-your-own bath salts.

At shows, she sells products under her Bewitching Brew Soap label.

She used that name at first in New Kensington. Then she rebranded the store in October to a "more bohemian vibe" because some customers thought it was a Halloween shop, and because she thought the witchcraft theme might not work in a conservative area.

"I'm not selling spells here," she said, "just making soap."

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