Since the Fitzgerald family took over Historic Smithville in 1997, few shops in the quaint retail village have enjoyed the sort of success that the Little Egg Harbor Soap Shop has.

Now entering its 11th year, business at the shop, one of three retail locations for the Marmora-based boutique soap company, is as brisk as ever.

While the shop owes much of its success to the summer tourism industry, its backbone has always been the locals who keep its goods flying off the shelves in the offseason, said Chris Quirk, who has managed the store for nine years.

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"Our customers are why we're here," Quirk said. "We're really busy in the summer, but our busy season is October through now, until Christmas is over, and our local people are really good to us."

Little Egg Harbor Soap Company was created by nurse Kathy Notaro, who found that traditional soap, much of it made using artificial chemicals, was bad for her skin. She began experimenting with natural, plant-based alternatives, and soon established a factory and store in Marmora. After seeing quick success, she expanded to Smithville, and later to Rehoboth Beach, Del.

Depending on the time of year, the shop stocks anywhere from 80 to 100 varieties of all-natural soaps, free of petroleum, sulfates and paraben, which Quirk says are detrimental to skin health.

The shop's most popular creation is its therapy bar, a scentless, colorless variety specially formulated for people with rosacea, psoriasis and eczema. It also offers soaps to fit any personality or season, from the micah-dusted Jersey Girl bar that smells faintly of baby powder, to the vanilla raspberry-scented Mistletoe Kiss, its most popular Christmas offering. Bars are sold by the ounce, most costing between $3 and $6.

While some might scoff at paying such a premium over the standard drug store bars, Quirk said the difference is immediately evident.

"After the first time you use this product, you see and feel a difference on the skin," Quirk said. "They use it up, then they want to come back."

In addition to its soaps, the shop stocks a number of creams and serums designed to combat a variety of ailments. They even offer a men's care line, called Man-Tra, which Quirk said has been a surprise hit. The shelves include a few items made by outside companies, but Little Egg Harbor Soap stands by their quality - and natural origins.

All Little Egg Harbor-branded products are made at their factory in Marmora, which churns out about 800 pounds of soap each week using a method called cold process, through which lye is added to a fat base to produce bar soap.

Tina Notaro, Kathy's niece, is one of the soapmakers at the factory. She said its her aunt's blend of different vegetable fats, like olive oil, sunflower oil and cocoa butter, that sets their product apart.

"Some oils will give you more of a lather, some will give you more of a cleansing agent. Others will moisturize your skin," Notaro said. "She has this specific ratio she's always been using, and that's what makes our soap different."

Specialty soap and beauty products have become increasingly popular as more and more people have discovered the benefits of natural alternatives, Quirk said.

Still, it's a niche market - but one they're well-equipped to fill from their spot in Historic Smithville.

"(Smithville shoppers) don't go to the mall. They might go buy cheese, or they might go buy a pet (toy), but they're choosing to come here," Quirk said. "That's one of the things we appreciate about being here. Without their support, we couldn't be here."

Little Egg Harbor Soap Company is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays, and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays.

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