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Slinging oils, making smells

Columbia Hillen

If you walked too fast, you might miss it, and that would be a shame.

For Aroma Workshop ( operates out of a small, glass-fronted store off trendy Halsted Street in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago where the delicate smell of perfumes linger in the air as you open the door and walk down a few steps to the ‘testing’ room.

Here, seated on high stools arranged along a counter with scores of miniature transparent bottles on black wooden trays is where clients create their own perfumes under the keen eye (and nose) of owner and former New York dancer turned perfumer, Tedd Neenan.

As Tedd, of Irish background and a native of Columbia, Missouri, is busy issuing guidance to clients, my companion and I spend several moments gazing around. I count over sixty miniature bottles on each of several wooden racks, each having a different oil inside, some with intriguing names – LSD, pink sugar, gardenia, honeysuckle, fig, cassis, sea mist, desert aloe and big sun. There is also a jar of coffee beans, to help clear nostrils. Behind us on a line of shelves standing against the wall are a wide selection of products made by Tedd and his staff - bath salts, eye creams, scrub masks, foot lotions, facial toners and aromatherapy preparations made from essences ranging from elder flower to rose hip, eucalyptus, pomegranate and aloe vera. Nearby are the soaps of all varieties – glycerin, coconut milk, China musk, juicy peach and white tea – as well as scent sticks.

It is a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of fragrant products.

Several customers are already there, reflecting wide age differences. To one side of us a middle-aged woman and four children under the age of 10. They voice their delight enthusiastically upon mixing oils and smelling the results. On the other side are two men (see photo below), one with an intricate tattoo on his upper arm. They sit eyes closed, in quiet contemplation, each holding a test strip close to their noses. They seem to have been here a while and are nearing the final, crucial stages of their personal perfume creation. They’re warm and friendly and are obviously having a good time. “I have never experienced anything like this before, it’s really a lot of fun,” says Garioso Buchanan, smiling. His friend, David Severson, nods in agreement, “It’s quite an interesting challenge,” he adds.

Nearby, Iris Lin, Tedd’s assistant, is dealing with several clients who have come to collect refills of fragrances they had made on previous visits. The Aroma Workshop has hundreds of what Tedd terms ‘recipes,’ from clients who regularly return to stock up on scents they had made – either for deodorants, perfumes or rooms sprays, etc.

Tedd says his interest in fragrances first began when he worked for several years in his brother’s shop ‘The Potion Parlor’ in Columbia. “I was always keen on fragrances but I had so much fun working there, mixing oils, that my interest was heightened immensely. I had been a dancer through the early ‘80's and fell in love with the creative process. Also, my wife, Liz Muckley, a Chicagoan, is an actress and Playback artist.”

Then - Tedd remembers - in those pioneering days only four main essential oils were used in his brother’s store. He now has around 240 oils at his disposal here.

To strengthen his knowledge, Tedd became a certified aromatherapist, attending classes at the Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy in San Rafael, California, before opening his business in Chicago in 1993. At that time the area was more run-down. “This place had been a lumberyard, then a shirt store, then a place that sold antiques,” he recalled. “But I was confident I could get a strong clientele base. After all, hundreds of cars and busses go by here every day.”

Tedd says his clientele is wide-ranging. “One day we might have the whole family here. The next, a husband and wife. Or a grandmother, mother and granddaughter. Sometimes, retirees or young people on Spring break. We regularly open in the evenings for special occasions, to cater for bridal showers or special birthdays where a group of close friends come in – create their own perfumes, drink champagne and chat. There can be a lot of lively fun then. We can host up to twelve people for an event.”

He added, “We get thirty to forty customers every week, about sixty per cent of whom want to make their own perfumes. Many come in from the suburbs. Some clients come in, make their own perfumes, which they then sell in their stores and we get a commission on the sales.”

If you don't see Tedd merrily ‘slinging oils’ as he terms it, in Aroma Workshop he says he is likely doing one of several things: hanging out with his partner in Bucktown; walking to Wicker Park; cooking; shopping at Stanley's; sitting in the first rows at a dance concert; attending an aromatherapy seminar, specially if Doctor Kurt Schnaubelt is leading it; pedaling to work; sweating at a step aerobic class; paddling a canoe in the Ozarks; or hiking in the Rockies.

Columbia Hillen

Columbia Hillen

Columbia Hillen

Columbia Hillen

Columbia Hillen

Columbia Hillen

Columbia Hillen

Sean Hillen

Sean Hillen has been an international journalist and editor for more than 30 years and is also a published author. His experience spans several continents - in Ireland, for the national daily, The Irish Times in England, as foreign correspondent for The Times and Daily Telegraph. In the US, Sean worked at the United Nations Media Center in New York, Scripps Howard Broadcasting and regional new...(Read More)

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