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The Fragrance Shop, a family journey of timeless scents

Among the thousands of perfumes lining the shelves at The Fragrance Shop in Carrboro are a perfume that is more than 200 years old, a perfume worn by the empress of France, and an oil that smells exactly like a well-loved lotion of a popular brand.

That first perfume, which smells of citrus with a cool, medicinal undertone – or is it overtone, intended to mask body odor in the 18th Century — is called “4711.” The perfume worn by the empress of France in 1860 is called, fittingly, “Imperiale.” It was created by the perfume house Guerlain to soothe her migraines.

“Burt’s Bees, we have a scent,” says long-time manager Jenny Mann during a recent visit to the store. And Mann pulls out, as she does, a bottle from tucked behind other bottles that only she remembers. “Someone told me they used to work at Burt’s Bees, right here in Carr Mill Mall,” she says. The bottle smells exactly like Burt’s Bees’ milk and honey lotion.

Mann is The Fragrance Shop’s expert “nose,” the olfactory powers of whom decides the perfumes available, crafts personalized perfumes for customers, and maintains quality control.

The Fragrance Shop is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and it has grown from many helping hands in a big family. The business originally was started by Penny Kay, Mann’s mother, in 1996 in Provincetown, Mass. The first major store opened in Miami Beach. By the late ‘90s, the family moved to New Orleans and opened a store there, and only left after Hurricane Katrina decimated the city. There were also stores in Philadelphia, Baltimore, then Charlotte. Finally, in early 2017, they came to Carrboro.

The family has moved all over for the stores, a journey that left a trail of delightful scents.

Penny and Neal Kay are the heads of the family. Neal Kay is a retired marketing executive, and they have nine children, five of whom were adopted. Mann manages the store. Sister Amy handles the web site. Another sister, Sue, creates the essential oil formulas. And a brother, Joshua, helps with buying.

As a result, the store has a touch of well-worn, well-loved, thoughtful considerations. Different members of the family pay attention to different details that others might not immediately pick up on.

The business buys oils from the major perfumeries in Grasse, France, the “perfume capital of the world.” Kay makes trips there, and the warmth and light of the South of France is carried in the store.

“We went to France and met some perfumers. And they wanted to make us perfumes without fillers,” Kay said.

The selling point of the business is the perfumes are without alcohol or fillers. When perfumes degrade, connoisseurs note, the alcohol evaporates and the top notes go first. The Fragrance Shop carries only the oil.

Upon walking in the store, customers are invited to try the perfumes with a few drops of oil on the wrist. Whether a perfume smells dazzling or awful depends on both the perfume and the wearer’s body chemistry. A multi-dimensional artform, evoking memory, nostalgia and triggering immediate senses – Does it smell like lavender and bergamot? Does it smell like a forest rain? Does it smell like a powdery mess you can’t wait to wash off?

“You don’t know until you put it on,” Mann said.

Customers are greeted first by the counter, lined with the glass bottles, called “flacons,” that store special blends, with names like “English Pear and Wildflower,” “Seashore,” and “Forest Rain.”

“Single note” perfumes are found in the corner. Behind the counter is a surprising selection of essential oils that customers don’t get to touch on their own, well-sourced from various parts of the world. There are several different kinds of lavender, rose, and chamomile, to start, making even a simple essential oil formula involve a multitude of choices.

When asked what her favorite perfume is, Mann finds it hard to say. “I go home every day and I smell, my clothes smell,” she said. “There is just so much.”

The business originally started with 600 Estée Lauder classics, and by now, it has grown into more than 2,000 bottles. New perfumes like “Mon Paris” by Yves Saint Laurent share shelf space with the iconic “Shalimar” and long-discontinued scents like “Krazy Kritzia,” known only by those who love perfumes.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have longevity and customer loyalty,” Mann said. “We have people who’ve been ordering from us for 18 years. It’s the relationship with people that’s very important.”

That loyal customer base, with some regulars ordering perfumes from as far as Dubai, helped buffer the business from the financial fallout of COVID-19.

According to Mann, in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina, the store was posting $30,000 a month in sales in store, which it never recovered after the disaster. “If Katrina had not hit New Orleans, we would still be in business,” Mann said. “We still have NOLA customers ordering from us.”

In Carrboro, during its first year, it had $1 million in sales, that’s including online orders and a side business of CBD oil.

“We took a drastic hit during COVID on retail and phone sales,” Mann said, “but we were lucky enough to maintain our online business thanks to our international and domestic customers who ordered during the whole pandemic.”

Elka Maxwell, who lives in Los Angeles, has ordered from The Fragrance Shop for 20 years, sending her favorite perfumes to family members around the world.

“I actually send oils to Ireland, to London and to Australia,” Maxwell said. “Because I have extended family bonds and so it helps me maintain a rapport at a distance but with love and with a personal touch.”

“I’ve been to the New Orleans store. They have beautiful stores and I find the customer service is beyond reproach,” she said. “I feel like a family friend in that we can talk about fragrances and our personal lives, and it’s just a very valuable part of my life.”

“People like to wear their perfumes when they choose to and it’s something that gives them confidence and they think of the person that sent them the perfume… . So I like to think that someone is thinking of me when they’re wearing their perfume and they’re feeling a little extra confident,” she added.

In 2015, Kay also started the store’s CBD business. She was experiencing pains in her body. “I started taking CBD, and my pain went away,” she said.

Ever since then, Kay has become practically a CBD ambassador. With her characteristic maternal enthusiasm and well-honed sales skills, Kay recommends to customers – and even strangers – to take CBD if she hears they have pains, spasms, and other ailments. Or if they just want to relax.

“I met this lady at Macy’s, and she had Parkinson’s,” Kay said. “I asked her, quietly, ‘Do you have Parkinson’s?’ And she nodded. So I called Jenny and told her to give her a free bottle.”

The brand is Colorado CBD, and Kay on her own also includes an independent lab test with every batch to ensure their quality.

It’s now a thriving part of the main perfume business.

A sense for scents

Because perfumes tell the emotional history of a culture, and most especially that of women, perfumes are evocative and trigger emotional memories, the cataloging of them simply cannot be too formulaic. At The Fragrance Shop, the selection is done on instinct, on the verve of the day-in and day-out work, and simply what “the nose” is ready to take in.

Mann studied fashion design and merchandising, and among her difficult jobs is staying on top of the perfume trends, which can be overwhelming. In recent years, after the release of “Mon Guerlain” in 2017 by Guerlain, with an ad campaign fronted by Angelina Jolie directed by Terrence Malick, the perfume world has lost some of its bearings. In 2018, Christian Dior released “Joy,” a floral citrus perfume fronted by Jennifer Lawrence, one of many perfumes that have become, well, too “on the nose.”

Mann has the knowledge to quickly point out: There is already a perfume named “Joy,” by Jean Patou, a classic and much more complex perfume from 1930.

“This girl, she knows everything,” Kay beamed during a sit-down interview alongside Mann. 

Manager Jenny Mann checks online orders while employees fill and label bottles. Photo by Monica Chen

Mann is also the main crafter of perfumes for those who walk in, looking for a personalized creation.

What do you like? What does your wife wear? Mann would ask.

Then she starts with a base of musk, amber or some other grounding ingredient, and layers it with a variety of scents. Pipette upon pipette go on the wrist, then a rub with the back of the glass to warm the oil. Then maybe a few drops to top off and give an extra zing of citrus.

Customers ask for discontinued perfumes they used to wear, bring in nearly empty perfume bottles.

All around the store are historic reminders of this work that has been done for centuries.

The Fragrance Shop is carrying on that tradition.

At Miami Beach, right after the family opened a store there, The Miami Herald did a write up.

The family had renovated the store and discovered a terrazzo floor underneath, which they buffed to shine. In that more open and prosperous late ‘90s time, the store employees also would stand out on Lincoln Road and dab shoppers.

“We are finding our clients, drop by drop,” Kay was quoted as saying.

Like perfumes, the story of The Fragrance Shop seems to be a multi-dimensional one expressed over time.

Start with a no-nonsense New England outlook, layer upon that the luxuriousness of Grasse, add the depth and sensuality of New Orleans, and finally, top with a few drops of hippie Carrboro.

A perfect blend.

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