Amanda Fenner calls her childhood idyllic, growing up in a house filled with candles and books.
But it wasn't until she was an adult that Fenner decided to combine the two passions of her youth. “It kind of happened organically,” says Fenner. “I had been making candles and selling them for a while, and a friend of mine who is Great Gatsby-obsessed had a birthday coming up.”
Fenner created a candle for her friend that combines elements of gin, juniper, and daisies to pay homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald's evocation of the Roaring '20s. Thus North Ave Candles was born, now a full-time venture for Fenner.
Her daughter Amelia is “the whole reason it exists as a business,” Fenner says. “I was doing it as a hobby. Once I had Amelia, I knew I wanted to stay home with her. I was in nursing school at the time, there was a farmer's market nearby, and I thought, ‘I could try and sell these candles I make.’”
Today Fenner operates out of a South Side studio, with one full-time and one part-time employee. Her merchandise is stocked by local and national bookstores, gift shops, clothing stores, and museums, and is available online to individual customers through her website.
“I didn't realize at the time how well candles actually sold in bookstores,” she says. “Book people and candle people, there's an overlap there.”
Fenner combines her extensive knowledge of literature with a keen sense of whimsy and a knack for finding the right accompanying scents. Her Banned Book Collection features candles inspired by The Handmaid's Tale (pomegranate and red tulip), Fahrenheit 451 (smoked pine and parchment), and The Color Purple (lavender and lilac).
Some titles were more problematic. Fenner struggled with Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret from her children's book collection before she came up with the inspired blend of frankincense and myrrh.
Other titles, notably the coffee and chestnut combination for 1984, are tributes to Fenner's out-of-the-box thinking. “In the book there's the Chestnut Street Cafe, where the rebels and lovers meet,” she says. “I came out with that candle after a lot of political malarkey, and so it's kind of like a coffee-1984-doublespeak-politics-let's-wake-up-here-this-is-nuts kind of thing.”
Fenner admits she's had a few flops. One notable misstep was creating a cherry lollipop scent for Lolita, which was not well-received. Other titles are resistant to aromas; there's just no good solution for a scented Animal Farm candle.
But pick an author and Fenner's imagination immediately kicks in. What's a good aroma for Haruki Murakami, the Japanese author of Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles?
“I would do a cherry blossom and a sea salt, a Japanese and a shore kind of smell,” Fenner says.