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The practice of cleanliness is already an act of consideration and generosity toward the world, you included. But if you shop for your cleaning products at our September 2023 Business of the Month, then it also advances two worthy social goals, that of reducing the economic and social isolation of people afflicted with mental illness, and that of reducing your environmental footprint. Fountain House + Body (105 Thompson Street) is the first brick-and-mortar store opened by the Fountain House, the renowned pioneer of the clubhouse model for helping people living with serious mental illness. It sells customizable, environmentally sustainable, low-waste, all-natural products. So when you swing by, you won’t just be doing good, you’ll also come out ready to make your surroundings smell terrific.
Fountain House traces its origins back to the early 1940s, when patients with a history of serious mental illness (i.e., schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder resistant to conventional treatment) formed a support group at the Rockland Psychiatric Center that they continued in Manhattan after being discharged from the institution. At first, they gathered at the steps of the New York Public Library. Before long, however, they managed with the help of volunteers to form a non-profit organization and raise funds to buy a permanent home on West 47th Street — a brownstone that contained a fountain (thus the name). The venue operated as a clubhouse from the outset, offering mutual social support to its members as they performed the everyday tasks of running the center. In 1955, though, it started a professional staff to also help address the members’ need for educational and employment opportunities. This model for psychosocial rehabilitation has been copied in almost forty states and in dozens of countries around the world. The Fountain House, with thousands of active members, remains the largest center of its kind in the world.
The Fountain House historically helped members find jobs by seeking out partnerships with entities throughout the city where they would place people in part-time, 6-month stints as a way of determining and developing their suitability for permanent employment. This approach suffered from the challenges inherent in navigating an employment application process for individuals who may not have held a job in twenty years, if ever. To address this limitation, Fountain House started operating social enterprises that would assist with the staffing of, for instance, mail rooms or Meals on Wheels. This allowed the group to make employment decisions based on members’ abilities and areas needing improvement. Following the same logic, Fountain House decided to open its first front-facing operation, a retail store that would offer employees the opportunity to interact with the public and, in so doing, help destigmatize people living with severe mental illness.
The retail store was a collaborative effort from the start. Members and Fountain House staff worked together on the market research, in developing a business plan, and in finding a location for the storefront. They considered multiple neighborhoods, before ultimately opting for the South Village, which appealed to them, because of the community feel of Thompson Street and the small footprint of the available storefronts. In selecting a type of business, they tried to find something that allowed the staff to participate themselves in the making of the merchandise. And that’s how the idea of a home and body store came about. The business launched in 2019 with the financial support of the Kate Spade New York Foundation and the Paul Newman Foundation, among others. Other than the store’s manager, who is also employed at the Fountain House, the boutique is staffed entirely by clubhouse members, who typically work there for six months before, depending on their performance, moving on to a more challenging six-month assignment or to a permanent position.
The store started out selling primarily soap and cleaners of all sorts, all developed by staff members and made by them in the back room using all-natural ingredients.
Many of these items are customizable, allowing the selection of essential oil additions to a cleaning base so as to achieve the fragrance of your choice. Products include dish detergent, hand soap, all purpose cleaner, room spray, shampoo bars, hand sanitizers, conditioner bars, stain removers, laundry soap powder, and glass cleaners, among others. In keeping with the goal of selling low-waste, plastic-free products, the store has recently added a refillery station, where customers can replenish their cleaning supplies using their own containers, spare themself the cost of a new container, and spare the planet the burden of extra plastic waste.
The store has also started adding lines from outside vendors, including, prominently, Iris Hantverk brushes of various kinds. These are all produced in Estonia and Sweden by blind people, who, in those countries, have traditionally specialized in the art of brush binding.
The timing of Fountain House + Body’s opening could have been better. Although business thrived during the first few months, the pandemic forced the store to shut down even before most other establishments did, due to the vulnerable population among its staff. To mitigate the loss in sales, they felt the need to improvise an online operation, even though this defeated the goal of the store, which entailed personal interaction. Since reopening, however, business has gradually picked up. Tourism traffic remains depressed, but the refillery station has proven a hit among local residents. Additionally, the store has added several new products to their inventory, including in-house-made candles. (They’re currently working on jack o’ lantern ones!)
Given the success of Fountain House + Body, the organization is considering opening other brick-and-mortar stores. In the meantime, we are thrilled to honor its first one as our September 2023 Business of the Month, for creating a rehabilitative space that allows us to sustainably indulge in the gift of cleanliness.
What special small business would you like to see featured next? Just click here to nominate our next one. Thank you! #shoplocalnyc
Here is a map of all our Businesses of the Month: