Rustic Candle Burns on After 10 Years on 4th Avenue

July 27, 2012

All of these candles at Rustic Candle were made by owner Monica Cota.

By Teya Vitu

Monica Cota slaves over a hot stove, day after day, year after year, stirring in colors and fragrances, quite the candle maker’s brew.

She cooks up the candles that are the heart and soul of Rusting Candle Co., 324 N. 4th Ave. Cota just celebrated her 10th anniversary in business July 14 with a party that roared from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

She makes all the pillar candles shelved in the store’s rear half. Some are also pyramid shaped. All are variously colored with chips steeped with 40 colors and scented from a row of squeeze bottles.

“All the pillar-style ones I make in-house,” she said.

In front, she offers hand-made tapers from 9 inches to a precarious 36 inches in height, made by Creative Candles in Kansas City. She also has small votive candles – some she makes, most come from “Amish country in Pennsylvania.”

“See those little dudes in the bucket, they’re only $1.25,” she said about the votives.

There’s a distinct truth in advertising in Cota’s choosing Rustic Candle for her shop name.

“These are pretty rustic. That imperfect charm is part of the deal,” Cota said. “I make them kind of like a cave man. It’s primitive. It works. I’m using old stock pots and tamale pots. Hey, it’s not the way to do it but it works. I got a used stove 10 years ago. It still works. It’s rustic, baby, let me tell you.”

Cota took an indirect route to candle maker, starting on a cross-country road trip in 1990s that delivered her to Waxman Candles.

“I was in the middle of nowhere in Lawrence, Kansas,” she remembered. “They hand poured their own candles. I used to waitress and bartend on 4th Avenue to pay my way through U of A. I thought ‘we need something like that on 4th Avenue.’”

She majored in Spanish, studied one summer in Guadalajara and one spring in Madrid, Spain.

“I had a candle making book I bought one day on clearance. I was still at Pima (Community College). I had it on a counter. One day I said ‘I never used this book.’ I bought wax and all the basic supplies at Southwest Bee Supply and went home and started to play. That was on my mind, just have some fun.”

Later that year, Cota graduated from UA at age 27 without any specific or even vague plans, armed with a Spanish degree.

“Now that I graduated, now what the hell am I going to do?” she pondered. “I had a good six months to figure out what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to wear panty hose. I didn’t want to sit in a cubicle. However, I knew the guy who had this space before me. I just fell into it. Just go for it and see what happens. I don’t have a business degree. It’s been 10 years and it feels like two years. I’m still figuring it out.”

Cota donates to the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the Waldorf School, and the Women’s 20/30 Club.

“Being involved in my community helps,” she said.

She opened Rustic Candle on July 1, 2002.

Rustic Candle indeed revolves around candles, but Cota also stocks candle accoutrements, including a variety of candle holders, sconces, chandeliers, glass tea light lanterns and “lots of wine things.” And there are assorted other complimentary items, such as the “cross wall” with large decorative crosses; hand cut night lights from Chino Valley, and two lines of handmade soap from Tucson and Colorado.

“I make my product on site. People support that it’s locally made and hand poured. Once they burn my candles, they notice the quality. We’re using a very high quality wax and we’re stringing it with the correct size wick.”

Cota uses flat braided or square braided wick with diameters ranging from 0C to 6C. Candles are made with paraffin, bee’s wax and soy wax.

Just a couple weeks ago, fencing went up in front of Rustic Candle as streetcar construction reached her block. No vehicle traffic can pass by – or park conveniently. Cota is sanguine about it all.

“We’ve endured that before,” she said, remembering the 4th Avenue underpass construction from 2007 to 2009, plus the ongoing economic malaise. “I’m a really positive person. Definitely, the economy and trends of what people are buying have changed. I have something that’s not a necessity item.”

But candles are a comfort item, and when things aren’t going great, a little comfort, like a handmade candle or some incense, can brighten a day.

Early on, Cota had an aversion to stocking incense when she opened the store, but customers kept asking for it. She now has a section at the rear of the store dedicated to incense. The two most prized are Morning Star from Japan, which dates back to 1575, and Nag Champa from India. She sells white sage for $5 a bundle.

“It’s almost a hidden treasure in here,” Cota said.

Rustic as Rustic Candle may be, Cota has had an Internet presence, in a rustic manner.

“I’ve always had a website but a year ago I got a webmaster to change the look,” Cota said. “It’s gotten a lot more action than I’ve ever gotten. Right now, 10 percent of my sales are online. I’d love it to be 50 percent online.”

A K-12 scrapbook reveals that as a child, Cota had varying aspirations to be a beautician, veterinarian, florist and mommy. Her life hasn’t taken her in any of those directions. The new century delivered her into the life of a candle entrepreneur.

“I can’t see myself doing anything else,” she said. “It beats the hell out of a real job.”