Raising the Bar

Artisanal soapmaker turns a long-time hobby into an enterprise

“I saw there wasn’t a handmade soap shop in Tryon,” says Robert Mangum, who answered the need with his hand-crafted body-care products.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

When Robert Mangum worked in a hospital, he made soap. When he worked in a funeral home, he made soap. When he worked as a jailer and bailiff, he made soap. When he was a teaching assistant, he made soap. When he worked at Best Buy, yes, he made soap. Even as a cancer patient — “the absolute worst time ever in my life” — he made soap. 

Now, he just makes soap.

Mountain Trail Soaps come in a variety of scents and colors.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

At age 50, Mangum is finally able to embrace his passion, selling his artisan soaps full time at his new shop in Tryon — Mountain Trail Soap Company. It’s a small, rustic enterprise in the Shops of Tryon retail enclave on Trade Street, about 250 square feet of soap bars, candles, and skin-care products displayed on his homemade cabinets and tables. He’s considering taking his website down, because he likes to interact with his customers in person, rather than fill online orders.

“I love to talk and have a good time,” says Mangum, after selling a woman a fragrant bagful. “I want people to know that I truly appreciate their support.”

Mangum also makes bath bombs.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Born in Asheville, Mangum lived in various places in Western North Carolina before buying a house in Tryon with his fiancée. “After seeing there wasn’t a handmade soap shop in this beautiful little town, I decided to look for a space … this is the absolute perfect place for a little soap shop.”

Mangum began making soap more than 20 years ago, for his two young sons who had eczema and sensitive skin. To get started, he bought soap-making ingredients from Michael’s hobby shop. Later, to hone his craft, he checked out library books on soapmaking, eventually developing a nourishing, all-natural concoction including oatmeal, honey, and goat’s milk. “I use ingredients that can be found in about everyone’s kitchen cabinet,” he says.

Mangum’s candles in the shop.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Friends and relatives began buying Mangum’s homemade soaps, giving him a creative outlet for his “God-given talent,” as well as a side gig for extra income. “Being raised in this area, I admit that it’s very uncommon for a Black male to be making soap,” he says. “In the beginning, I did have a few friends laugh about it — but that didn’t deter me.” Today, Mangum’s unique scents include Sweet Orange/Clove, Black Raspberry with Vanilla, Bamboo Cypress, Cranberry Salsa, and Cuban Tobacco. During the work week, he makes about 40 pounds of soap. And on his days off, he makes as much as he can to keep his stock up.

Discovered in 2013, the softball-sized tumor in Mangum’s chest resulted in chemotherapy and open-heart surgery. He went from 190 pounds down to 108. “Having survived that, it enhanced my desire to make my dream — self-employment — come true.

“It makes me feel very proud to look around the shop knowing that I didn’t just go out and buy these items — I make them. You’re getting authenticity.”

Mountain Trail Soap Company, 112 North Trade St., Tryon. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11am-5pm. For more information, call 828-301-4546 or see mountaintrailsoapcompany.com (also on Facebook). 

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