Lori Basson’s personality seeps out of every corner of her soap kitchen. Decorative coffee mugs are stacked amongst Pyrex measuring cups while a ruffled floral apron hangs on the shelves surrounded by vividly colorful blocks of soap. A new smell comes to life in every step around the kitchen. Lavender is on one side, while the bright and spicy scent of turmeric cuts through another. A glass jar full of rum, juniper, and allspice cooks in the sunlight, perched on a windowsill next to 15 shiny spools of gift wrapping ribbon. The most fascinating parts of the kitchen are the shelves where blocks of soap are stacked high, waiting to be retrieved and sold. Each block flaunts a unique texture, design, or color from its spot on the shelf. Some were marbled and had two or more colors such as a burnt orange and bold navy swirling throughout the bar, while others had natural ingredients, like dried roses, clinging to the edges of the soap.
Every unique product came to life by the experience and creativity of Basson, the owner of the Camamu, a soap company run from a little red barn in Southeast Portland’s Sellwood neighborhood.
Camamu is a thriving business. It creates, sells, ships, stamps, opens and closes. But something about it, probably Basson’s inviting demeanor, made the shop in the little red barn feel more like walking into a friend’s home.
Basson says she dislikes the business side of soap making the most. Paper order forms piled neatly on her desk while towers of boxes were waiting to ship Camamu soap around the country. Her landline phone rang at least four or five times an afternoon, and each time Basson answered with a charming “Hello?” and continued a business conversation in her lofty and genuine tone. Business is good, but the craft is much better and more fulfilling.
Before opening Camamu in 2000, Basson explored other interests and potential careers. She attended the University of Wisconsin where she graduated with a degree in nursing and spent time working as a nurse in Beirut, Lebanon during the civil war. Although Basson loved the act of healing and helping others, she did not enjoy having a boss.
“I feel a lot of existential angst when I work for someone. So I just kept going,” Basson says.
After working in Beirut, she started a career in cheese making, which she had a scientific curiosity for. “I spent the most beautiful summer of my adult life on a biodynamic cheese farm outside of London,” she says. Basson would spend her days working with the cheese artisans doing grueling work like lifting, stirring, and lugging pounds of cream or soft cheese. In the evenings she would walk through the adjacent forest while the summer sun set to take in the beauty of the nature around her.
Basson describes the soap making process with passion like an artist with hundreds of creative dreams floating in her mind; the only way to give them life is by turning them into a bar of soap. She understands that every batch of soap is ephemera and will eventually cease to exist, but she cares to make each product beautiful. “Soap doesn’t just have to be this green or white bar. It can be a way to bring aesthetics into everyday life. You may even marvel at it when you use it and watch as the swirls take different patterns or as the color changes,” she says.
“I bring my whole life experience to it. I have places I’ve been and the way some places smell that I try to recreate in a soap. I tailor in my own memories.” Basson then passed over her Thalassa Sea Salt Soap bar laced with juniper and cypress, which was inspired by her childhood in Cyprus. This bar reminds her of days when she and her family would take a boat out on the Mediterranean sea and swim off of the coast of Greek islands. With only a small backpack and a sleeping bag each, they would camp for the night, marinating in the scents that she now stirs into a bar of soap.
“I’ve lived in Lebanon, Jordan, Cyprus, and I spent a lot of time in England and France,” Basson says. Wild thyme is one of her favorite scents, and it reminds her of touring the South of France years ago. She pays homage to the soap makers of Marseille with a wild thyme bar that was made in the Castille fashion with an olive oil base.
Even the name of the business was inspired by her travels. Camamu is a city located on the eastern coast of Brazil. When Basson visited Camamu, she was stirred by the beauty of the town. She remembers “entering Camamu through a palm lined bay and staying in an ecolodge on the Atlantic surrounded by native people in dugout canoes.” Although it was a “beautiful little town,” Camamu stuck as the name of the business when Basson discovered that the word camamu meant “the bath water that falls from a woman’s breast,” she says laughing.
Her beginnings as a nurse also play into her love for soap. Basson loves the idea that a bar of soap can have the power to heal the body whether it may combat stress, acne or a sore body. She uses her experience as a nurse to think of ways that she can make people feel better, coupling her knowledge of the human body and natural essential oils.
Although every aspect of her journey from nursing school, to a summer abroad learning the craft of cheese making, to her years growing up overseas play into the business that she grows now, she never intended for it to be this way. Basson followed what she loved and moved passionately into the life she has now without a plan. It’s safe to say, even now she still doesn’t have a plan. The life overseas where she has family and treasured memories still calls to her, but her business keeps her nestled in Portland for now. “I just got onto this path and stayed on it. The longer I’ve been doing it, the more life has opened up for me.”