It’s a pain in the neck to make incense,” says Marc Biales, the founder of Wild Berry. “You’re dealing with liquids. The sticks are dusty. Then you have to clean up. If you didn’t have to do it, you wouldn’t do it.” The Miami University grad, descended from a long line of small-biz entrepreneurs, came to believe just that: He had to do it. He turned the homemade fragrance sticks, which he concocted in the back of the quirky college-town gift shop he had opened in 1971, into what is probably the nation’s largest manufacturer of incense. Half a century later, Wild Berry still crafts its products in-house (albeit now in a 69,000-square-foot facility in Oxford, Ohio), and exports many of its 100 scents worldwide.
“I was trying to get out of it,” explains Biales “I wanted to find somebody else to make it, to sell it at my store. But I was going to all the trade shows and no one had a product as good as mine.” A light bulb went off in his head: If his incense was so superior, why not lean into the category?
So lean he did. He perfected the selection of raw materials; put more fragrance on a stick than his competitors; and devised a way to make the product stay fresh for months, even years.
This year, the Wild Berry boutique on Oxford’s Main Street celebrates 50 years in business, having evolved from an emporium of domestic hippie handicrafts to a one-stop shop for esoteric international goods. Today the offerings range from gongs to bongs—there are pot-leaf leggings, musical instruments, vintage kids’ toys, candies, and nostalgic posters. Behind a beaded curtain in back is perhaps the only sex- and head-shop nook that could be called “cute,” with its pink-fur handcuffs and one-hit pipes. What holds it all together, though, is the smiles that the merch elicits from shoppers.
A handful of regional stores came and went in the ’70s and ’80s. But today, just the original store, plus a satellite housed in the factory compound, are what maintain the peace-and-love ethos. The flagship product—classic incense with offbeat scents such as Fairy Dust, Dragon’s Blood, and Love Shack—hasn’t just endured. It’s driven business to new heights. And at 25 cents a stick, it’s an inflation-resistant, affordable luxury.
The half-century mark does not signal a winding-down. “I could retire,” Biales says. “But why? I’m still having fun.”