When I was young, my family had a tradition of going to the Caribbean. My parents escaped for a few weeks some winters to Trinidad-Tobago, leaving us with the grandparents and bringing back records of The Mighty Sparrow and steel drum music to play in our living room. One fateful winter, they took my brothers and I down to Puerto Rico for what would turn out to be our last outing as a family. The day we got back, they explained to us, in that same living room, that my dad was going to live elsewhere “to be closer to his work.” Even after that, my mother, as a single mom, managed to get us down to Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten and St. Croix. The year she died, my younger brother and I spent Christmas in Antigua, on the English side. And I continued to go to St. John through my twenties.
I don’t remember when I adopted the fragrance Bay Rum, which comes from the Virgin Islands. All I know is I liked it right away as a child and never warmed up to the scent of any other men’s cologne. It was masculine and yet subtle, not in your face like most male perfumes. My mother must have bought me a bottle at some point, and I remember, after it ran out, buying a replacement on my way through St. Thomas, where it was made (and which had an airport), to my final destination in St. John, where I stayed in a cheap concession with tents on platforms at the edge of the national park.
That bottle lasted four decades. It was a distinctive square glass container with woven palm fronds making a kind of basket holding it like a Portuguese wine. A no-nonsense metal cap screwed on the top. I didn’t use the cologne often, and it kept well. But finally, the bottle ran dry. Even then, it sat in the medicine cabinet a year or two.
That’s when my now-adult daughter comes along and asks, “What do you want for your 65th birthday?” And for the first time in years, I have a solid answer: another bottle of Bay Rum. She goes off and doesn’t get me the Bay Rum, something about they’re out of stock. My birthday arrives. I’m sitting around. No Bay Rum. So, I hop on the Internet to investigate this so-called stock-out.
And what I find is a beautiful Web page for the St Johns Fragrance Company with a headquarters address in St. Thomas. I check it out. Yes, it does appear that those distinctive woven bottles are on the page, but they are indeed labeled “sold out.” However, there is a Hurricane Series that seems to be in stock. Its bottle has the suggestion of a woven pattern painted on in bright colors. The price of an 8 oz. bottle has risen from the $27.50 I paid last to $75. Not a surprise. And, although there is still a St. Thomas physical address at the bottom of the page, the telephone number comes from 203. Connecticut. Next state over.
I’m intrigued. I dial it up. The phone is answered straight off by Rhys Moore, who seems to be almost literally chief cook and bottle washer. That’s when I learn the whole story.
You may recall that the U.S. Virgin Islands were devastated by a one-two punch from Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017. Well, in the aftermath, there were no more palms from which to harvest fronds. And the weavers departed for points distant, seeking any kind of work. That left Rhys with limited options.
“I had the juice and I had the bottles,” he said. That led to the genesis of the Hurricane edition, which maintained the palm frond motif through paint. From each bottle sold, $3 (4%) goes to Americares, a relief agency providing help to Caribbean nations still dealing with the storms’ aftermath.
“I’m in!” I told him. I just wanted to verify that it was the same Bay Rum and got the surprising additional feel-good benefit of donating to a worthy cause. “The only trouble is,” I qualified, “this order will likely last me the rest of my life.” He said he’d try to convince me to make more frequent use of the elixir.
As we were talking, he told me how communications in St. Thomas had been damaged as well and that, although the U.S. Post Office delivered mail from the Virgin Islands at the same rate as anywhere else in the country, shipping had become unreliable. Thus, he was shipping in batch to Connecticut and distributing from there. The new owner of the company happens to be in New York.
Meanwhile, he said, there’s a promotion where you can get a free bar of Bay Rum soap on a rope. I was online, so he walked me through the page and at checkout gave me a code that dropped the soap price off the order. Better still!
He said, “Keep that bottle you’ve got. It’s a collector’s item” and told me how to use a small funnel to transfer the liquid from the new bottle to the old if I wanted to keep it in circulation.
So, imagine my joy when the package arrives a few days later and it’s got not only the replacement bottle and free soap, but a couple of West Indian Lime sample soaps as well, and two glass applicators with glass balls, one each for the Bay Rum and a West Indian Lime cologne I haven’t tried.
Best of all, there’s a handwritten note from Rhys, dated, it just so happens, my birthday. I’m not going to say “best present ever,” but it was right up there.