By Cayce Osborne
Skin care can be a complicated issue. Can that expensive body lotion really do all it claims? Are the ingredients beneficial, or are all those scientific-sounding concoctions listed on the label doing more harm than good? The decision on what to buy and how much to spend is often difficult, and having a trusted friend to recommend a product is how many of us find our lifelong favorites. Thanks to Chuck Bauer and Chuck Beckwith, shopping at The Soap Opera is like entering a store where your best friend has tried each and every product. The shelves are lined with products Bauer and Beckwith believe in and have actually tried. With a staff who is similarly informed, it’s hard to go wrong with anything you’ll find at this venerable State Street institution.
Having been influenced by small European specialty boutiques, Bauer and Beckwith opened a small cart on the Library Mall as art students in the 1970s. They soon moved to a permanent storefront and kept upgrading their retail space, eventually purchasing their current location at 319 State St. in 1982. “We really wanted something independent that we could do in the nature of a small business,” says Beckwith. “We both grew up internationally and realized that smaller stores could be pretty great. In the ’70s, retail was not that exciting, and nobody had small stores.” Body care items were relegated to drug stores or supermarkets, and because of this they were able to hit upon an underserved niche. The Soap Opera has been a success ever since.
Their achievement has been no accident, however. They’ve put in long hours, created a warm and welcoming environment, and above all, provided peerless customer service.
“Our products are personal,” explains Bauer. “So we have the intimacy of a small space and a counter with a lot of personal service. There’s hardly any of that left.Kind of like bookstores used to be: small, personal, where the people had read everything and could talk books.”
Product lines like Crabtree & Evelyn, Roger Gallet, Maja and their in-house brand have been favorites since the store’s inception, and they seek out new additions — like decadent MOR soaps—when the inspiration strikes or because of a customer request or recommendation.At the same time, they are careful not to become slaves to trend, as those products often come and go.
“There’s always that temptation to purchase every new thing that comes along, like towels and shower curtains,” says Bauer. “Pretty soon you become foggy in the mind of your customers. We’ve always prided ourselves on keeping our focus really sharp, and if they’ve bought something here before, they can very likely get it again.We are loyal to the lines we carry.”
Because of this loyalty, you’ll often overhear customers telling personal stories about their favorite products — maybe reminiscing about when their mother used to shop here, or that their favorite European brand isn’t carried anywhere else and they’re so happy to find it again. Shopping at The Soap Opera is an engaging experience,with a knowledgeable staff who always puts the customer first.
Counter service will never be interrupted by a phone call, for instance. “You know how it is — if the phone rings, that comes first. It’s like someone is being allowed to butt in front of you in line.Why is that? We never, ever let that happen here,” says Bauer. All calls and e-mails are handled by Bauer in the downstairs office, while you’ll most often find Beckwith upstairs working with customers or creating a window display, a division of labor that has evolved over the life of their partnership and works perfectly for both of them.
While Beckwith calls good customer service “an old-fashioned value,” at the same time their attention to detail meshes well with the modern consumer’s demands. They maintain an extensive Web site that allows customers to order online or over the phone, and packages are shipped out the same day the order is placed.
With all this focus on the store, it’s a wonder the two have any free time, but in addition to traveling — during which they often stumble upon new products for the store — they maintain two local households, and Bauer enjoys plein air painting. Their Madison home in the University Heights neighborhood is often a stop on local architectural or garden tours, and is indeed a marvel of design. Working with the architect who first revamped their storefront, they handed over a 200-item wish list and three years later, the house was done.
“We consider it a great place to share with people. It’s a wild house,with 11 levels in it, so we’re constantly on the stairs. But we’re thrilled with it,”says Beckwith. Another project is their second home, a farm near New Glarus, and while Beckwith refers to it as “their little weekend getaway,” it also boasts an impressive 18 acres of planted prairie and an oak savannah restoration.
It could be said that Bauer and Beckwith actually have three homes—if you include the store itself. They are proud to own a building on State Street and to be part of the downtown community — something they have become well known for and that has been well documented.But when asked what we might not know about them, Bauer responds, surprisingly, by bringing up the issue of retirement.
“No one has ever asked us about it.We would like to say that there are so many intangibles about working, but the rewards are ongoing.” With a hard-working staff, for which both men are grateful, they have the flexibility to put energy into their homes and their hobbies. As for making any changes to the rewarding life they’ve carved out for themselves, Bauer puts it simply: “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it!”