In the shadow of a hulking cruise ship, Warehouse No. 1 sits nondescriptly on the West Indian Company dock on the island of St. Thomas. Ignored by most vacationers in search of duty-free bargains, it’s nevertheless a magnet for those accidental tourists lured by the mysterious scent that wafts from the building, or who misunderstand the signs and think it’s a liquor store. But whatever inspires the cruisers to pass through the old wooden doors, they can be sure to receive a warm island welcome from Jerry Woodhouse, president of the West Indies Bay Company, makers of bay rum since 1946.
Ivy Style readers will remember Woodhouse from his essay about selling Ivy in the boom years; we’ve also written about the classic fragrance — the so-called “scent of Madison Avenue” — here.
I recently made the pilgrimage to Charlotte Amalie, territorial capital of the United States Virgin Islands, to visit with Woodhouse. I found him at his desk in the front room of No.1, his office, showroom, warehouse and manufacturing space since 1997, two years after Hurricane Marilyn destroyed the old bay rum factory located in the Vitelco building in Havensight.
A sign attached to the left door of the warehouse promises tours. Woodhouse says that previously the tours were more formal, but he still shows a few curious tourists the bay rum manufacturing facility. In the back room the familiar scents are prepared with natural ingredients in steel tanks, then filtered and bottled. Woodhouse’s personal tour is an intimate experience that makes one realizes how artisinal is the process that produces some of our favorite fragrances.
The West Indies Bay Company produces three mens fragrance lines and one for women. Whether you are a devotee of Bay Rum or any of the other St. Johns products, it will come packaged in a bottle as unique as its contents. All bottles are covered in the trademarked hand-woven palm fronds. The distinct pattern, called fish pot, has been associated with the product since 1952. Here’s how it’s done:
A marketing guru told Woodhouse that the average consumer only has a 15-second attention span. The video runs 36 seconds, and visitors who see it at Warehouse No. 1 always want to see more. The palm is woven like a glove, slipped over the bottle, and then attached. It a process that takes the weaver 30 minutes per bottle. There’s another interesting point about the bottles that is often overlooked. The familiar export bottle we all know has a sticker that says “Imported From The West Indies,” while local market bottles carry the Virgin Islands label.
As one can imagine, it is quite the mixed crowd that finds its way to the West Indies Bay Company headquarters. Among the most confused are those who, Woodhouse says, “think we are in the rum business.” Undaunted, Woodhouse views these encounters as an opportunity to educate potential customers. Visitors who fall under the spell of bay rum and want to purchase are directed to the downtown retail shop.
While some retailers bemoan the Internet as a brick-and-mortar slayer, Woodhouse credits the Internet for creating a niche that allowed him to open his retail shop. “Perfume and China were once big duty-free draws for the island,” he says, “but with tax-free Internet sales this is no longer the case.” This change in the local business climate, along with shops that never reopened after Hurricane Marilyn, cut Woodhouse’s Main Street island accounts from 13 to three. Opening a downtown retail store was the result of these market conditions. The retail shop is located waterside inside the AH Riise Mall — a fitting home considering the mall takes its name from the 19th-century Danish chemist who pioneered the double distillation of bay rum.
The atelier pays homage to St. John’s Bay Rum’s history and includes vintage advertising and packaging. The space allows for the fragrance products to be promoted in an attractive environment and the trained staff is available to assist in selection. The shop, which was opened in March of 2011, also offers tailored clothing and sportswear. It serves the island business community by providing Southwick suits and Alden shoes. The store also features the new West Indies clothing line; Woodhouse was unable to use the name St. John’s Bay, a trademark owned by JC Penney. The West Indies collection includes fragrance, sunscreen, and men’s and women’s sportswear. As an island outfitter, the shop devotes most of its space to resort wear. It is a wonderful sight to see so much madras and seersucker in one place. In a color scheme as comforting as a nursery, women’s clothing is located along a pink wall and men’s along a blue.
Those looking for souvenirs of the sartorial kind will find it at the West Indies Bay flagship store. Among the exclusive items include a fish-pot weave tunic for ladies, and St. Thomas embroidered shorts for men. Since both the retail space and the West Indies collection are newly launched, there is an excitement in discovering something fresh yet still rooted in the traditional wheelhouse.
Now that I am home and summer has begun, I catch myself looking at the bright sportswear people are wearing and wonder how long it will be before I see something from the island of St. Thomas. — CHRISTOPHER SHARP