Noe Valley Voice July-August 2006

Common Scents Smelling Sweet for 35 Years

By Kate Volkman

If you live in Noe Valley and enjoy taking bubble baths, there's a good chance your bubbles come from the 24th Street bath shop Common Scents.

Common Scents is a local treasure. It has such a rosy reputation, in fact, that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently honored the store for 35 years of "pampering Noe Valley with your wide assortment of quality creams, candles, oils and soaps." The commendation was awarded at a May 19 party hosted by the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association.

So how did this business blossom?

Common Scents owners Helen Norris and Linda Ramey opened their shop, at 3920 24th Street near Sanchez, in the fall of 1971. But it might not have happened without a nudge from another small business owner.

"Helen and I were not good friends in particular. We [just] knew each other," recalls Ramey. "I ran into a mutual friend of ours one day. He said, 'Wouldn't it be great to open a body shop?' And I didn't even know what a body shop was. I was like, 'A body shop--like a car repair or someplace like that?'"

The friend, George DuBois, who worked as a sandal maker, explained that he meant a store that carried soaps, similar to The Body Shop, a hip new store in Berkeley.

"I was totally not interested," Ramey says. "I was a school librarian at the time. And then he ran into Helen and he did the same thing with her. So she called me and said, 'George says you're interested in opening a body shop.' And I said, 'Well, not exactly.' But she asked if I'd be interested in talking about it, so we did. And then everything fell into place."

The more they thought about it, the more they became convinced that opening an ecology-minded shop, where customers could refill their lotions and shampoos using the same containers, would be "something fun to do, an adventure for us," says Norris. "I really liked the Berkeley store. And it seemed like a trend that we would enjoy doing--helping save the environment."

Norris lived on 23rd Street at the time, so one day she and Ramey drove down 24th Street and spotted the space at 3920. The 80-something owner of the building was very particular about selecting his next tenant, Norris remembers. "He said, 'Well, there's someone who wants to make candles here, but I don't think that's a very good idea, so you girls can have it."

Rent Was $90 Per Month

They rented the space for $90 per month. Norris got her first credit card, and she and Ramey each pitched in $300 to start the business. DuBois was the one who suggested the store's punny name.

The two women purchased bulk bubble baths and lotions from local chemists in Oakland and Berkeley, in scents ranging from Eucalyptus Mint to French Vanilla to China Rain. They arranged their wares in baskets and on orange crates foraged from the sidewalks of Chinatown. And soon they met the orange cat that was the inspiration for their cat-in-a-tub logo design.

"Six-Pack was a kitten who lived upstairs, but he used to hang out down here," Ramey remembers. Eventually the neighbors left him to Ramey and Norris, and Six-Pack became the community draw to Common Scents. "We'd have no business at all, but the kids would come in and say, 'Is Six-Pack here?'

"To this day, people still come in and say, 'Oh, remember Six-Pack?' And then you know they've been here for ages."

Dedicated Customers

It's Friday morning, and at the same minute Ramey mentions longtime customers, Cheryl Price walks in looking for unscented shampoo. She says, "I've lived in the city for 20 years and have been coming here on and off. And actually, my mother, who lives in New York City, orders by mail. It's funny because in New York you can get all sorts of things, but she's dedicated."

Ramey confirms that they do mail orders, mostly with former customers who have moved away from Noe Valley. "We have a very loyal base of customers," she says. Store manager Jan Van Swearingen agrees. "There are so many people who shop here because they know they're supporting actual people. You can come in any morning and meet one of them! People will come in for something, and I'll say, 'We're out of that, but you can probably get it at Target,' and they'll say, 'But I don't want to buy it at Target. I want to buy it here.'"

Happy Employees

Ramey or Norris opens the shop at 10 a.m. Then Van Swearingen and employee Claudine Trittin-Richman arrive in the early afternoon and close up about 7 p.m. They also have part-time employees Dara Spanier and Deanna Chan. Van Swearingen says, "[Norris and Ramey] are the best employers. They couldn't be nicer. They treat us so well--health care and dental."

Behind the counter there's a wall of photographs of current and former staff, husbands, children, grandchildren, dogs and cats, and Six-Pack--the Common Scents family. "As you can see, we have a lot of parties," says Ramey. "Christmas parties, birthday parties.... We really socialize all together. Helen, Jan, and Claudine especially like live music, so they go out a lot. We're a real bonded group."

They love their customers, too. Ramey gets into a conversation with regular Pegine Quain about her T-shirt, which reads, "Running toward the pursuit of happiness." Quain's husband and friend are getting ready to run a 100-mile race. Ramey says, "This is what makes this business so interesting. Every person has a story like that. I think as far as our enjoyment of the business is concerned, it has so much to do with the people. We have really nice customers.

"Claudine is really really good with customers," she adds. Asked what she does at Common Scents, Trittin-Richman answers, "Psychiatrist," and laughs kindly. "People will come in and ask questions, and pretty soon it will just lead to their personal lives and how they feel about the world. That's what I really enjoy about working here--the people."

An Ocean of Bath Products

And their customers love them, too. offers reviews of businesses by real shoppers. Poe T. wrote of Common Scents, "Nothing but love for this tiny, locally owned, little precious shop."

Another online shopper wrote, "This is a great little hidden gem in Noe Valley. It's a very small storefront, and you'd easily walk right by it if you weren't specifically looking for it. The space is tiny, but every single inch of this place is packed with products, including a variety of Kiehl's and comparable 'fine' bath/ beauty products."

The bubble baths and lotions they started with 35 years ago still sell off the shelves today. Customers can bring back their empty bottles and have them re-filled, to save $1 and help save the environment, too. In addition, the store now carries at least 30 different lines of soaps, lotions, shampoos, deodorants, candles, incense, hair ties, massage oils, makeup, and toothpaste, including the ever-popular Thymes, Pacifica, and Tom's of Maine. They're willing to special-order products by request, too.

Not too long ago they received a deluge of requests for Jessicurl, a product for curly hair, which they now carry. And customer Shana Soulis reports, "This brand Nelsons, they were kind enough to look it up and order it for me. I like the acne gel and the calendula cream. I think their products are fantastic, and it was really cool to have it ordered."

Squeaky Clean Business

Norris herself builds the shelves that line the walls. She and Ramey share responsibilities for the store, trading hours and weekends. Norris does the books and Ramey, "What do I do? What is my specialty? I kind of come and hang out here," she laughs.

In the three-and-a-half decades they've been in business, they've never gone into debt. There have been some rough times, but they cut back on their orders and somehow bounce back. Ramey says they're actually squeaking by now. "It's very hard to be a small business in these times. There are a lot of expenses no one would even realize you have--employee taxes, state compensation, liability insurance, rent, and just regular bills."

Norris admits, "It gets tedious sometimes, but [not] now that we've got Jan! She's got enthusiasm for the people and the products and the store, so it's really made it so it's not the same old every day. There have been times when I thought, I just can't talk about another bar of soap! I just can't. So Jan does."

What are their plans for the future? Norris says, "As long as Jan's really happy here and wants to stay, and as long as our rent doesn't go way up, we'll probably keep staying here."

Ramey joyfully reports, "We've been here for so long that we have people who come in who shopped here when they were little children. And now they come in and they're bringing their own little children. That's when you realize how long you've been open!"

Voice writer Kate Volkman is doing a series on the history of businesses in Noe Valley. She also does genealogy and oral history for families and companies.