NORTH TONAWANDA – Back in the middle of the 19th century, Martinsville was a community unto itself at the eastern edge of North Tonawanda. It was also a time when making things by hand was a way of life.
Heather Kalisiak, who grew up in Martinsville, which is now part of North Tonawanda, remains true to her community’s name with her quirky shop, Martinsville Soapwork, and also true to the past when everything was handmade.
Customers of the shop, which recently moved to 88 Webster St., are greeted by an old-fashioned tub filled with artificial bubbles and smells of fresh soap and fragrances.
Once inside, you can explore and smell different soaps and lotions. Like in an old-fashioned candy store, you can press your nose up against a window and watch Kalisiak make and then cut big blocks of tie-dyed soap that will soon be packaged in wrappers that she has designed herself. Like an old-fashioned drugstore, a variety of fragrances lines the shelves behind her, waiting to be mixed into batches of soap.
“My favorite part is cutting the soap because I have no control over how the veins (colors) come out,” she said. “I could make it all one color, but that’s so boring. Fragrance and looks are the two big things. I love what I do: finding new fragrances. And I love shaving the soap.”
The store sells its products online, but those customers miss out on a big part of the experience. Coming inside, customers are encouraged to explore the many fragrances of the original soaps and try out the lotions.
Oatmeal, lime, hazelnut cappuccino, lavender, rum, cherry blossom, honey, even dirt and real coffee are ingredients. The list of soapy scents – also in some cases used for bath confetti, body frostings and lotions –goes on and on.
There also are lip balms that vary from the quirky bacon or dill pickle to chardonnay, orange chocolate, banana nut bread and cotton candy – 116 flavors at last count.
“I encourage people not to save these soaps for special occasions. If you don’t use it every day, you won’t use it up, and you won’t be back for more,” she said.
Kalisiak also has stockpiled her shop full of the history of Martinsville and some of the people who lived there. Martinsville started in 1842, more than 50 years before the City of North Tonawanda. Its identity remains quite strong among those who live there, with a park continuing its name, as well as St. Martin’s Lutheran Church. For a time, it even had its own post office.
Kalisiak is married with two children, Stephen, 16, and Talia, 13. She and her husband, Chris, and father-in-law, Mike, were putting up a new sign for their grand reopening on Webster Street on a beautiful spring day when we met at her shop.
You make all your products and your packaging and also the sign hanging outside?
You’ll find that most of what we do is handmade. I grew up with a very strong work ethic. My grandfather built his house from the ground up. It’s just the family culture. We built it or we just didn’t have it.
What is Martinsville?
I have a lot of respect for the history and the story behind Martinsville. It’s part of North Tonawanda – now. Old Falls Boulevard was the main street, from Niagara Falls Boulevard, to Erie Avenue to Walck Road. It was founded on April 10, 1842. It was founded by a group of Lutheran/Prussian immigrants that named their church St. Martin’s, after Martin Luther. St. Martin’s is still there. It was also the location of one of the lumber mills that gave North Tonawanda it’s nickname of the Lumber City. I have access to a private collection of photographs of Martinsville, from between 1910 to 1930, and copies of those are displayed in the store. The family that owned that mill, these are their photos.
You lived in Martinsville?
I still live in Martinsville. My kids are fifth generation living on the same street. I live next door to my parents, and the house that my grandfather built is across the street. So when I named the business 12 years ago, it was just a natural. At that time it was just Martinsville Emporium because I wasn’t making soap.
You started in your home first?
Yes, then we had a shop on Niagara Falls Boulevard. It was a good location, but cars went fast and weren’t stopping. I needed more foot traffic, and that’s why I decided to move to Webster Street.
Why do you hope people will come here for soap, rather than a drugstore?
There’s a lot of people who will come here. People understand that handmade soap is better for your skin than commercial soap because of the way it is processed. Commercial soap is hyperprocessed, and it doesn’t have any of the glycerin in it anymore.
So you have history and handmade soap. Both are similar in their old-fashioned appeal.
It’s a throwback to when people made things with their hands, and there was that respect for their makers. I grew up on the site of what was once a lumber mill, so I grew up with that history of when, literally, people made things with their hands. And I grew up in a family culture of when people made things with their hands.
When did you first learn how to make soap?
I am entirely self-taught. I started in 2002. It was a quick process, about six months, from selling stuff that was already made to making soap that was from a base, to making stuff from lye. I’m basically a handmade Bath and Body Works, but I don’t use any petroleum products.
We all go to places like that because it smells good.
I am very particular about my fragrances and go through scores and scores of testers. For every 20 testers I get in there is one I will actually test in a product. And for every 10 items that I test, maybe only one of them will become a limited-edition soap. And then if it does really well, I will add a lotion to match it, and if that does well, I will add a shower gel and a body mist and body frosting. My rose soap smells like roses. My lilac soap smells like lilacs. You will know it smells like it says on the label.
What’s the favorite?
Lilac. Men like bay rum. The orange cupcake is my favorite.
And where do you make it?
I make it right here, in the store.
There are other homemade soap makers popping up.
I don’t consider them my competition. Everybody needs soap.
So I guess if you want to try it, you have to come in and smell it.
That’s the best thing about having the store. I’ve sold online and done fairly well, but you need to be able to smell it and try it. I have testers of all the lotions and body frostings. You need to come it and smell it and figure out what … fragrances you like. You can come in and smell everything here.
Information about products and hours are available on Facebook and online at MartinsvilleSoapworks.com or by phone at 694-4822.