Michelle Bolser is Midwesterner through-and-through, born in St. Joseph, Missouri and raised in Gardner, Kansas. As a child, she wanted to be a veterinarian, working at McDonalds to save money all through high school and during her brief stint at The University of Kansas. The college life wasn’t for her, though. She found herself struggling with classes needed for Veterinary Science, like Chemistry. Shortly after leaving KU, she took a position at Walmart, then at World Market, where she fell in love with retail and retail management. It was her job at World Market that inspired her to start creating her own products.
In 2016, Bolser says, “I fell in love with the idea of breaking out of the corporate world and the burnout I was feeling. I wanted to become more financially independent working for myself and opening an Etsy shop.” Ironically, the girl who failed chemistry at KU was about to embark on a self-made journey focusing mainly on that exact subject.
Bolser was obsessed with the thought of making natural bath and body products. She used them herself, so why not try and make them on her own? She started with soap. Her first step was going to a local craft store and using DIY kits that are premade to understand how the process works. These kits don’t come with 100% natural products, so Bolser did hours worth of research and read several books on soap making. “It’s such an ancient process. One of the things I was nervous about was using lye, which can give you a chemical burn,” Bolser says. Lye is a strong alkaline liquor rich in potassium carbonate leached from wood ashes. In the ancient days, the most difficult part of soap-making was determining if the lye was the correct strength. According to an article on the origins of soap, “during Colonial times the “lye water” was considered the proper strength to make soap when an egg or small potato placed in the solution floated about halfway beneath the surface of the solution.” In modern times, you just need to know your chemistry. Bolser has now mastered the subject that once caused her much grief.
When she made her first batch of soap, Bolser states she screamed, “Oh my word, it worked!” What started out as lye, oils and basic ingredients had turned into something magical. It was then that her company’s name, Alchemy Bath Co., was born. Alchemy is a word used to describe a medieval chemical science, as well as a process that transforms something in a mysterious way. Her perfected soap process contains 100% vegan, plant-based oils, water, and lye, making sure not to use any chemical fragrances or surfactants to get the amazing bubbly lathes. Bolser’s soaps have names like “Pachamama”, which features bright orange, earthy sage and patchouli, and “Chill Out”, a bright purple and cream colored bar, scented with lavender.
Next, she delved into bath bombs. “I have wept over bath bombs before because I could not get them to work,” Bolser says. Getting her bath bomb recipe just right took over nine months. Alchemy’s “Mood” bath bomb is teal and yellow, scented with rosemary, lemongrass and tea tree and is a good way to reset the senses.
Alchemy started out slow in the Fall of 2016, but picked up speed very fast. “We had boutiques approaching us in December. By May of 2017, we were in three brick and mortar shops and vended in our first craft show, The Strawberry Swing, at the 2017 Maker Faire at Union Station. By Fall 2017, we had landed two more boutiques and with me still working full time at World Market, my husband and I had our hands full running our growing business out of our house,” Bolser says.
In January of 2018, Bolser and her husband decided that they needed to move their operations out of their house and into a larger space. They saw an ad for a “collaborative boutique” at a local, popular mall where Bolser used to shop when she was a kid. It seemed like a dream come true for Alchemy. Shortly after becoming a vendor in this boutique, Alchemy was approached by the mall management and offered their very own storefront. They decided to take the mall up on their offer and opened up their very own Alchemy Co. storefront in April of 2018. Their experience over the next year in the mall was both positive and negative. “We had the opportunity and the platform to meet many new customers and build meaningful relationships and connections. Our storefront was very different than any other storefront at the mall, even from the stores that sold similar products. We had our entire little company packed into a 500 square foot store: our office, production and making area, as well as the retail aspect. It was really cool having the opportunity to chat with customers as they got to watch up close as we made products fresh in front of them.”
Unfortunately, the foot traffic in the mall was falling every month. Between the combination of the poor traffic, poor promotion and support of small businesses in the mall (they were one of five local, small businesses in a mall full of name-brand corporations), long operating hours (73 hours per week), and high rent, it wasn’t a feasible, long-term option for a small and growing business like Alchemy. In May of 2019, Bolser decided not to renew their lease at the mall and to pursue other collaborations and ventures. Currently, Alchemy is focusing on growing their business online, enjoying the ability to get involved in local craft shows and in the maker community, as well as working with their numerous wholesale and private label customers. Alchemy partnered with mover and shaker Brandon Love of Crumble Co. and is currently located in a Crumble’s cooperative maker space in Bonner Springs, Kansas Together, they have created a whole new bath and body line, including lip glosses, face serums and skin balms.
Michelle says, “One of my biggest inspirations comes from getting to share ideas and energy with my fellow small business owners and makers in the KC area. It is so easy to get isolated and feel incredibly alone on your journey. I always find myself alive and buzzing with inspiration after getting to spend some face time with my maker colleagues.” One of her favorite things about the Maker Movement happening in Kansas City and beyond is the amazing sense of belonging and community. “Never once have I felt like an outsider or like I was not welcome. It is a beautiful thing to be a part of.”
Her advice for up-and-coming makers: don’t be afraid to jump right in! Get involved in local maker groups, meet-ups, events, and collaborations. “As an outsider looking in, it can all look so overwhelming, competitive and intimidating but in reality, even seasoned pros still feel like they are brand new on the scene sometimes,” Bolser says.
(Photos by Amy Shamblen and Lauren Pustateri)