MORE THAN SHAVE SOAP: Stirling also produces bar soap, liquid body soap, shampoo bars, pre-shave oil, post-shave balm, aftershave splash, beard oil, beard balm, body lotion, body butter, hand sanitizer, eau de toilettes and more. Matthew Martin

To explain the niche in which Booneville’s Stirling Soap Co. is one of the world’s leading names, first, a detour down memory lane: 

I learned to shave on a plug-in electric razor, a hand-me-down that smelled of burned hair and Old Spice. It struggled with my peach fuzz mustache and made a lot of noise. I graduated to the Mach 3 or whatever Gillette was peddling in the ’90s when I was in high school. Sometime around 2013, I was sold, probably from a podcast ad, on Harry’s significantly cheaper subscription service. For nearly all that time, I put shaving in the same category as brushing my teeth: a boring if crucial part of my hygiene routine that I did without thinking about it.

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Then my friend Ben got evangelical about wet shaving. At a dudes’ weekend last year, he went so far as to bring everyone samples of shave soap and shaving brushes and give a demonstration of the process. He showed us how a glob of shave soap, sometimes called “shaving butter” because of its consistency, goes into the bottom of a shaving bowl, which often looks like a squat coffee cup. Then he demonstrated how you wet the shaving brush, which resembles a large makeup brush and is made of synthetic hair or sometimes badger or horse hair, and swirl it in the bowl to create a thick lather. Next, you use the shaving brush to apply lather to your face. Unlike regular soap, shave soap is not for cleaning; it’s for moisturising and making your face slick for the razor. 

Here’s the point in the demonstration where everyone in our crew was initially skeptical: True wet shaving adherents don’t use a modern, multiblade cartridge razor. Instead, they typically opt for a double-edged safety razor, which you fit with a single, disposable razor blade that can cut on either side. This is the razor of your grandfather’s generation, popularized by King Camp Gillette around the turn of the 20th century and later provided to every American soldier in World War I. It’s heavy, often chrome plated with a convex blade guard on top and twist handles on the bottom that release the blade guard to change the razor. Ben promised us we had nothing to fear. He said he hadn’t cut himself and guaranteed that the shave was smoother and better for your complexion. It was a convincing performance; most of our nine-man crew converted to wet shaving. I’ve never shaved every day, and I don’t plan on changing my ways, but taking 10 minutes twice a week for a wet shave has become one of the small joys of monotonous pandemic time. 

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Ben’s wet shaving sermon included gifts of sample pucks of Stirling shave soap. And that’s how I found my way in March to Logan County to visit with Rod and Mandy Lovan, whose thriving small business is remaking downtown Booneville thanks to far-flung customers.

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Booneville peaked in the early 20th century about the time the safety razor did. It was where the railroad crews working the Rock Island line from Little Rock to Oklahoma swapped out and where thousands of people came to quarantine and seek treatment at the Arkansas State Tuberculosis Sanatorium. These days, technically the biggest thing going in Booneville is Rockline Industries, producer of wet wipes and coffee filters, but it employs far fewer than the 800 the town’s Cargill Meat Processing plant did before it was destroyed in a series of ammonia-fueled explosions on Easter Sunday in 2008.

But downtown, where you can see evidence of distant prosperity in the historic building stock, the Lovans are the prime movers and shakers. They own five historic buildings, including two that house Stirling Soap Co., which they opened in this location in 2019, and three designated for Stirling Coffee Co., a new venture made possible by the success of the soap company. And the Lovans have grander visions. 

Theirs is a story that rural Arkansas is longing to tell: They employ 15 at the soap company, do 99 percent of their sales online, and have seen growth in revenue every year that they’ve been in business. They hope to follow a similar trajectory with the coffee roastery, where they already have three employees.

The Lovans met in the Army and married while Rod was still on active duty. After his third tour of Iraq, they took a late honeymoon to Scotland. One day, at the William Wallace Monument overlooking the town of Stirling, with sheep grazing the grassy hillsides, they started talking about charting a slower, more natural way of life. They could raise sheep for meat and tallow to make soap. 

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Back at home in Texas, in a rental house with no land for sheep, the idea still sounded like something to aspire to, so the Lovans decided to get started. They watched all the soapmaking videos they could find on YouTube and read all the books they could order on Amazon. They bought tallow and coconut oil and essential oils and stored them under their kitchen table. They spent weekends shrink-wrapping plastic around the bath soap they made in pots in their kitchen. They built up a large inventory and got a booth at Trade Days, a sprawling monthly flea market in Canton, Texas. They sold maybe six bars of soap, total. 

“It was a massive failure,” Rod said. “More people asked us directions to the bathroom than about our soap.”

So they went back to the drawing board. Rod, who’s barrel-chested, clean shaven on face and head and looks a bit like the actor Dean Norris (Hank from “Breaking Bad”), had gotten into wet shaving after his last tour of duty and paid $20 for a puck of shaving soap that was made using lanolin. “It was terrible,” he said. But the Lovans also realized that, rather than competing with thousands of soap makers selling their wares at farmers markets across the country, they could focus on a growing niche. 

They fine-tuned a recipe and process, and Rod peddled their shave soap on online forums and subreddits and YouTube channels. When Stirling launched in 2012, it was one of only a handful of artisan shaving soap manufacturers. Today, the market is flooded, according to the Lovans. 

ROD AND MANDY LOVAN: Their Stirling Soap Co. thrives in downtown Booneville with 99 percent of its revenue coming from online customers.

If you think of wet shaving in terms of the beer industry, where craft beer was an esoteric, rounding error in the broader market 20 years ago but now constitutes a quarter of the market, Rod hopes that 10 years from now Stirling will be seen as the Sam Adams of wet shaving, an early leader that emerged as one of the industry’s top players. There aren’t readily available figures for what the size of the traditional wet shaving market represents relative to the whole, which San Francisco-based Grand View Research valued at $11.2 billion in 2018, but it’s clearly growing. In May, Gillette introduced a line of King C. Gillette traditional wet shaving products that you can buy in Walgreen’s.

Rod grew up in Subiaco. He and Mandy moved to Booneville in 2014 to be close to Rod’s sister, who married a guy from there, and Rod’s mother, who moved there after retiring as a teacher. Rod and Mandy own 21 acres just outside of town with plenty of room for their three young sons to roam (Mandy was pregnant with the youngest in March). They keep sheep on 5 of their acres, though despite their initial vision, Stirling’s tallow doesn’t come from their sheep; it’s from a supplier of beef tallow in Pennsylvania.

“When we moved here from Texas, our entire company fit on our 6 by 12 utility trailer and the back of our pick-up truck,” Mandy said. “A really high volume day then would have been 15-20 orders. Now we’re doing upward of 80 orders a day plus our retail customers. We’ve always had international customers, but we have international wholesalers now that sell through their retail and ecommerce locations and retailers all over the country who sell in their retail locations.” You can buy Stirling products from resellers in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Russia, South Korea, Spain and the United Kingdom. Rod said he expected to add distribution to Malaysia, Norway and more countries in the European Union soon. 

At $13.60 for a 5.8-ounce puck, which comes in nearly 50 different scents, shave soap represents the largest chunk of revenue for Stirling. But that’s just a small piece of the company’s product line. At stirlingsoap.com, you’ll also find bar soap, liquid body soap, shampoo bars, pre-shave oil, post-shave balm, aftershave splash, beard oil, beard balm, body lotion, body butter, alum blocks, hand sanitizer and eau de toilettes. The Lovans recently bought an industrial sewing machine to make canvas and leather dopp kits. They sell all the necessary tools for wet shaving — razors, razor blades, razor stands, shaving bowls, shaving brushes — all of which they have made for them to sell. They have visions of opening a CNC milling operation where they would make their own razors.

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Unlike the soap you buy in the grocery store, Stirling’s still has natural glycerine in it. “If you’ve ever heard the term ‘squeaky clean,’ that’s where it actually originates from,” Rod said. “When you move from a commercial soap that’s made from detergents and doesn’t have the glycerine in it, you are stripping your skin. For a lot of people that’s where they’re going to get the dry, itchy feelings. With our soap, not having the sulfates [in commercial soap] and having the natural glycerine, your skin isn’t going to feel as dry.”

Ben, my friend who has gone deep down the rabbit hole of wet shaving culture, said Stirling stands out for three reasons: In the community, it’s universally regarded as being in the top tier for shave soap that’s among the slickest and most protective. The price point is perhaps unrivaled. And the customer service, which the Lovans usually handle personally, is excellent.

In their early days in Booneville, the Lovans considered moving elsewhere. But even with providing an average wage that’s near Arkansas’s median wage of $15.84 and a benefits package, the cost of business is attractively low and they’ve become invested in preserving the historic downtown. It was after growing the business at their home property that the Lovans decided to move the operation, including production and shipping, downtown.  

“We’re here for the long haul,” Rod said. They’re trying to make the soap business as autonomous as possible. They each have journeyman apprentices who handle the production and plan to hire apprentices for each of those journeymen in turn. 

The Lovans have confidence that the soap business will continue to grow, but they think the addition of the coffee roastery will provide more financial stability. “The market is extremely saturated,” Rod conceded. “The only thing that gives us confidence is our soap company and the ability we have to kind of leverage our current customer base. We see your morning shave and your morning coffee as being very symbiotic.” 

The Lovans are working with an importer to bring in coffee beans, which they’re roasting in Booneville. They just launched a monthly coffee subscription plan. The midterm vision is to partner with University of Arkansas soil scientists to offer farmers in coffee-rich countries like Honduras, Ethiopia and Kenya value-added consultation in exchange for a sales relationship. They hope to be able to leverage those relationships “as a way to work directly with individual farms so that the origins of our beans are 100% traceable, which will allow quite a few perks for us, not the least of which is to be able to make sure that the farmers and the workers themselves are receiving a living wage on their coffee,” Rod said. 

The coffee also fits in the vision for a slower life filled with high quality, natural goodness the Lovans dreamed up in Scotland on their honeymoon. “You only have so many cups of coffee in your lifetime,” Mandy said. “You should want it to be a good one.”

In Little Rock, the Historic Arkansas Museum gift store sells Stirling products. Check stirlingsoap.com for more retail locations throughout the state or order online.