EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series about people and businesses that make things in Berkeley.
People don’t often think of Berkeley as a factory town, but manufacturing has been going on here for over a century. West Berkeley grew up around factories and still houses our lively industrial district.
Over the years, the nature of our industry has greatly changed, shifting from heavy to light, introducing new technologies and incorporating many artists and artisans. Manufacturing remains a vital part of our town’s economy and culture. To many Berkeleyans, it’s also an invisible part.
Americans are starting to grasp the importance of industry to the nation’s prosperity. Going behind the walls of our factories and laboratories, workshops and warehouses, this series will enable Berkeley citizens to get acquainted with their own town’s industrial scene, the challenges it faces and the unique contributions it makes to our local life.
Berkeley’s Body Time Was the Original Body Shop
In the past thirty years, three Berkeley-born businesses revolutionized their industries and made their names famous around the world: Chez Panisse, Peet’s Coffee and The Body Shop. You may be thinking: Chez Panisse and Peet’s, for sure, but The Body Shop? Isn’t that the company run by that famous British woman entrepreneur, Anita Roddick?
It is now. But in the beginning, The Body Shop was the name of the one-of-a-kind business that was started in 1970 on Telegraph Avenue by two fifty-something sisters-in-law, Peggy Short and Jane Saunders, with the help of their good friends Hank and Charlotte Libby.
As Manda Heron, Peggy Short’s daughter, and Body Time’s current owner and president, tells it, her aunt proposed to her mother that they start a French-style perfume store, where customers could do their own blending. Hank Libby, the pharmaceutical chemist who ran Libby Labs in West Berkeley, urged them to have not just perfumes but shampoos, lotions and bubble baths.
“They didn’t have any money,” says Heron. “So they bought cheap empty plastic bottles; they hand-labeled all their own products; they poured all the products from gallon bottles; the soap was in slabs, and they cut it with a big cleaver; they wrapped everything by hand; and everything was sold by the ounce. So you could come in, and bring your own bottle in, or you could bring The Body Shop bottle in and have it refilled. They also started custom scenting. They had a lot of unscented products, mostly body oils, and you could custom scent them with all these perfume oils. Plus they sold the perfume oils in little vials.”
In 1970, this was a radically new way to sell personal care products. Heron lies The Body Shop’s innovations to the spirit of the times. “All these young people were involved in fighting the Vietnam War,” she says. “There was the sense of hope that things could be changed.”
Certainly anyone walking into the first Body Shop, on Telegraph Avenue, immediately felt a big change from the too-often intimidating cosmetics counter of a department store. The mood was friendly and relaxed. The Body Shop staff dressed casually, with little or no makeup. The place was homey, its counters made of naturally finished wood, its walls hung with an antique mirror and a wood mantelpiece.
And the products were noticeably different from the standard offerings of the industry. The Body Shop’s offerings were biodegradable. Many of them, such as Papaya Moisture Cream, Avocado Lotion, Cocoa Butter Cream and Camomile Shampoo, emphasized natural ingredients. Their quality was as high as anything sold by major manufacturers, but thanks to the absence of fancy packaging and expensive advertising, the prices were much lower. And you could recycle the company’s empty containers at the store. “There wasn’t anything like it,” says Heron, and it took off right away.
By the mid-1970’s, The Body Shop had grown to include several retail stores, as well as mail order and wholesale divisions. The two founders continued to run the company, with the added assistance of their two daughters each.
Meanwhile, imitators had sprung up across the country and abroad. In 1976 a British company calling itself “The Body Shop” opened a similar business in England. The owner, Anita Roddick, wanted to expand into the United States but couldn’t use the name because the Berkeley-based company already had it.
Peggy Short and Jane Saunders had gotten the original name for their store from Charlotte Libby. When they’d told her that they’d found a counter space for their new shop in C.J.’s Old Garage on Telegraph, which was being turned into small stores, she’d said, “Oh, call it The Body Shop!”
In 1987, after much negotiation, Peggy Short and Jane Saunders sold the rights to the name to Roddick’s firm for $3.5 million. In 1992, the original Body Shop changed its name to Body Time.
Today perhaps the biggest challenge facing Body Time is that the business concept it pioneered has gotten too successful. After Anita Roddick’s organization came into the United States, Heron says, “big-time corporate money—The Limited, Victoria’s Secret—imitated them.” Then came the green grocers and the holistic pharmacies, also selling environmentally friendly personal care products. In the face of a saturated market and a faltering economy, Body Time saw its sales drop by 20 percent last year.
Body Time’s founders had many offers to franchise their business. They preferred to keep it a small, family-run and family-owned operation. Manda Heron, 55, carries on the tradition. The company’s intimate character, she says, is suited to its high level of customer service.
“Because we do mixing in the stores, customers need highly qualified help. It’s easy to overscent a product. If you put too much essential oil into a perfume or a lotion, it’s ruined.”
Body Time staff are trained to know the properties of different oils—almond and citrus can be caustic, lavender is soothing—and which ones enhance each other. It was the company’s staff who developed China Rain, for 20 years Body Times’ best-selling scent.
But customers are welcome to come up with their own fragrance recipes. Indeed, a customer suggested the basic formula for Heron’s favorite perfume, a mixture of amber resin and jojoba oil.
Body Time’s ingredients come from Prima Fleur in San Rafael and West Berkeley’s Libby Labs, now run by Hank’s daughter Susan.
“We get big drums from Libby, and we pour their contents into four-, eight- and 16-ounce containers and send them to the stores, where they get labeled. We also send the stores gallons, which they pour on site. If a product’s not real popular, they pour it in the stores. If it’s real popular, we pour it. And we have a little teeny pouring machine for putting perfume oils in little vials.”
Body Time collaborates with both Libby Labs and Prima Fleur on new products. Right now Heron’s working on a body butter that can be custom scented.
Many of the items in the store’s “menu” have won a loyal following of longtime customers. In fact, customers are so loyal that it’s hard to close a product line. Often, when a product has been discontinued, Body Time brings it back in response to customer complaints.
That responsiveness is another hallmark of the company. “We write back to everybody. The reason we can do it is because we’re small, and we want to do it.” Many customers have been patrons for 15 or 20 years.
Today Body Time has seven retail outlets, including four in Berkeley. The company’s offices, warehouse and substantial mail-order operation are all located in a handsome new building in West Berkeley.
The Berkeley connection matters. “We thought about moving the headquarters to Richmond, but I really wanted to stay in Berkeley,” says Heron. “We have employees who get to work on the bus. Getting to Richmond would be a horrible trek for them.”
But there’s more at stake in the Berkeley address than convenience. There’s also a commitment to history. “What happened on Telegraph Avenue,” Heron says, “could only have happened on Telegraph Avenue.”
Thanks to her family, their employees and their customers, it’s still happening on Telegraph and everywhere else that Body Time products are produced, sold and used.