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Originally published July 6, 2010 at 8:28 PM | Page modified July 6, 2010 at 10:14 PM

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Bliss Soaps on Capitol Hill closes its doors

Phil Wright's family has been making soap for three generations, but that tradition is at an end for now.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Phil Wright's family has been making soap for three generations, but that tradition is at an end for now.

Wright, the last in his family to keep the trade alive, has owned Bliss Soaps on Capitol Hill for the past four years. He has befriended customers and gained a reputation for selling some of the best handmade soap in town.

But last week the store closed — and Wright contends it wasn't the recession but a bank error that was the final straw.

He claims Chase, the bank owned by JPMorgan Chase, froze the store's checking account, causing irrecoverable financial damage during the crucial holiday season and forcing him to hang a goodbye sign on the store's front door.

"Thank you for four years of love and support," it said. "This community rocks."

Chase has formally acknowledged that it made a mistake with the store's account, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, a banking regulator, also found Chase had committed an error. "Recently the Bliss Soaps accounts at JPMorgan Chase bank were inadvertently restricted by the bank," Phil Stark, the bank's financial-center manager, wrote in a letter for Bliss Soaps to distribute to upset customers. "These accounts were blocked by mistake."

A spokesperson for Chase declined to comment, saying a lawsuit is pending. Al Donohue, the attorney for Bliss, said he has not yet filed a lawsuit, though he plans to.

People walking past Bliss Soaps last week stopped abruptly when they noticed the farewell message posted on the door.

Charlette Lefevre, co-director of the Seattle Museum of Mysteries, which is in the same block, said losing the store is a "punch" to the neighborhood.

"It's one less reason to come to the north end of Broadway," she said.

Regular customers said they were upset and sad to find the store was closing.

Wright feels the same way.

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He said Chase's mistakes, which kept him from accessing the store's account for more than a week right at the start of the Christmas season, threw his business into a financial pit.

"They couldn't have picked a worse time for this to happen," Donohue said.

Bliss Soaps usually makes most of its revenue at Christmas, selling at the store as well as online or on the phone. But in late November, as Bliss was changing from one checking account to another at Chase, the bank erroneously put a hold on the new account for at least a week. That meant Wright couldn't access his money to buy raw materials, setting back his production and causing him to miss the largest business opportunity of the year.

Wright said in many cases the company couldn't ship the Bliss Soaps products to customers in time for the holidays.

Though Wright said he did have a stock of Christmas products, it wasn't enough to meet the demand.

It meant bringing in about $50,000 less for the year.

"We'd still be living on that now," Wright said.

Typically, Wright said the business survives on its Christmas-season income — which Donohue said accounts for 35 to 50 percent of the store's total income — until tourist season in the summer.

Business has been normal since the Chase mistake, Wright said, but it doesn't make up for missing the Christmas surge. In the past seven months, he hasn't been able to afford rent for the store's space. Wright said his landlord graciously waived the rent, hoping the business would recover.

But it didn't.

Last Wednesday morning, Wright stood in his store, surrounded by crated-up decorations, a mop-bucket, and a single cart of handmade soap — the store's last.

What's next?

"I really have no idea," Wright said.

If he can, though, Wright would like to get back into the soap business.

He stood by his last cart, explaining how he melts fat and adds fruit and other ingredients to make soap. One of his soaps was made with real Seattle rain, collected in a bucket. The pineapple soap is his favorite.

"Isn't that good?" he said, holding a chunk of the soap up to his nose and breathing it in.

Some of Wright's customers seemed as sad as he is to be losing the business.

Elysa Gomez, a longtime Bliss Soaps customer, said it was like losing a family member.

Two years ago, she was diagnosed with cancer. Gomez said Wright helped her cope, making soaps for the nurses who worked with her, and care packages for Gomez's mother and sister when they came to stay with her.

She said she'll miss having the store around.

"The neighborhood won't be the same without it," she said.

Carly Flandro: 206-464-2108 or cflandro@seattletimes.com

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