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Zip zap Zop: Making suds downtown

Seven stories above his small storefront on Union Street, Rick Roden makes soap.

Roden is the owner of Zop, a handmade soap store just off Westminster Street - a 10-minute walk from campus - that also sells shampoos, lotions and fragrances. Zop offers the usual aromatic varieties, like lavender, jasmine and sandalwood, as well as more unusual soaps like bergamot, vetiver and seaside - a particularly exfoliating variety because it includes sand from a Newport beach. Most unusual, perhaps, is the carbon soap, a jet-black bar that produces black suds. Customers rave about the soap, which uses carbon sourced from Malaysia, Roden said. "It works," he added, noting that it even cured his son of acne.

 Roden uses his favorite scent, fern, for the carbon soap, which is hard to identify out of context. Roden once made a blue, lettuce-scented soap and named it "Conspiracy Soap" as a joke because it seemed exotic to customers who couldn't identify the lettuce scent.

The name Zop came from a friend's daughter, who was always reprimanded by her mother when she mispronounced the word soap. Roden named his business Zop so the mother would no longer correct her.

Today, Roden is showing me how to make a lily of the valley bar soap. Our lab, Roden's high-ceilinged apartment, is strewn with boxes - he's moving out soon - as well as books, records, shelves of bottles and drying racks of soap. His kitchen is divided in half, a cooking side and a soap-making side.

In Roden's most basic explanation, "soap is made from mixing acids and alkalides." The acids are oils, and the most common alkalide used for soap-making is lye.

Certain oils go in and out of favor. Right now, shea butter is a particularly popular ingredient, Roden said. There are soap trends, he said, "just like anything."

Our soap's acids will be avocado oil and palm kernel oil, which is like a "workhorse," he said, as it is both cheap and gets the job done.

Moving over to the computer desk in a corner of the loft, Roden fiddles with an Excel spreadsheet, entering different amounts of oil to determine the optimal combination for this particular batch. As he adjusts inputs, categories like "hardness" and "conditioning" fluctuate on a graph. These are the considerations, Roden said - "Do you want a bar of soap that's going to have a nice, tight lather? Do you want a soap that's going to condition you?"

Roden's customers most often ask for conditioning soaps, so he delivers. "I make indulgent bars of soap," he said.

He has his usual recipes, but today's mixture will produce a custom batch. "This is going to be a ... very fluffy, very lathering bar of soap," he said, adding that it will be so clean, "you could eat this stuff."

Roden does not suggest eating soap, though some customers drop hints that they're eating his bars, he said. "It's a fetish."

Once the ratios are set, we start measuring and mixing. Adding the water and lye is a bit alarming when the chemical reaction rapidly heats up, but otherwise there isn't much we do that you couldn't do in a regular kitchen, provided you had multiple plastic buckets and sodium hydroxide.

Still, in Roden's own words: "Soap-making's messy."

As we wait for the mixture to cool, Roden makes the soap labels and wrapper by manipulating a simple hand-drawn doodle, mirroring and repeating the image into an abstract, colorful pattern. Neither of us knows what a lily of the valley looks like, so we google the flower to figure out a color scheme for the label. We discover that lilies of the valley are white, so we decide on a light green. After a few minutes of Photoshop magic, the large industrial printer behind us prints out our wrapper.

Less than five hours after we pour our final mixture, stirred up with a beater attached to a power drill, into long rectangular molds, Roden texts me a picture of the dried white-and-green marbleized soap, which will be ready to cut the next day.

The soap will be ready to sell within two days.

Zop is not Roden's first business, nor is it his only one. He also uses his industrial printer and a vintage, fixed-up stamper to make buttons and magnets for customers who order them on eBay. Before Zop, Roden owned a bookstore and a bar.

He said he taught himself how to make soap, using information from books, but mostly learning from trial and error. He's been doing it for over seven years, though he only opened the Zop store about a year ago.

He said he'll probably close the store soon, and is considering a move, maybe to Bristol, where he would continue selling soap only wholesale. For years, Roden just sold soap wholesale, which he said he prefers to retail.

"I'm not a merchandiser," he said. "I don't have it in me to do that."

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