The Culture of Headshops
My headshop life has been an interesting ride. I have been an “alternative pipe” retailer for 23 years. As of recently, I have decided to share parts of my story. It seems that the American headshop is a dying breed. The intersect of culture and cannabis is being pulled apart.
Maybe the roots of headshop life have never been truly tied to cannabis culture. It’s bigger than one shop, one mission, or one movement. It’s more about grand concepts like freedom and independent thought, than legalization or homeopathic health. In the 90’s I was a marijuana advocate, but more than that I was an advocate for hemp. I had a cubicle and a sweet title working in the corporate world; but this life came with sabotaging coworkers, terrible hourly mandates, and a cannabis free lifestyle requirement. Literally, I consumed cannabis to put up with the downside of the corporate life I was living. One day, I got popped for a pee test. That was all the push I needed. It was time to jump off the cliff of entrepreneurialism and see if I could land on my feet. I started my headshop life with a hemp clothing store in 1997. Looking back, it wasn’t my advocacy that drove my decision; that was merely a vehicle. My decision to begin my headshop life was rooted more in the desire for freedom. I thought I was going to be selling goods with a positive message. What I didn’t realize is that I was taking responsibility for stewardship of an entire culture. Not solely of course, but as a participating member.
Any niche culture has gathering places where like minded people can find services, and each other, outside of the mainstream boxes. Think about that little herb shop with the homeopathic remedies, or that eclectic spiritual gift store with tarot and crystals, and that headshop with all the tools and cultural items for your smokin lifestyle. At the heart of these types of stores is someone who has dedicated their lives to the participation of that niche culture. I wasn’t just an entrepreneur, I soon learned I was a curator of the culture I was participating in. I learned about the rich and colorful history of people who had come before me. People like Don and Patty Collins, founders of Pypes Palace since 1976. They still work the counter and answer the phones at their Portland location to this day! Legend has it that there was a headshop in Vancouver, Washington that even preceded Pypes Palace. I have heard tall tales about a company called America the Beautiful Dreamer founded by Don Thompson in 1970 in Vancouver, Washington. The company sold clothes and records, but might have had a couple special cases and shelves for alternative smokers. Don was 17 when he started. In the 80’s he transitioned his business from a headshop to a waterbed retailer. He and his children still run his furniture company today. I am proud to be a part of the dynasty that is Pacific Northwest headshops. Every region of the country has its own unique lineage of local shops catering to the smoking lifestyle and the culture contained within.
So what is the big deal about headshops? To me, the draw and the service of a headshop is found simply in their existence. Society, culture, and government are constantly in a wrestling match with, and against one another. Headshops are legitimate businesses, open to the public, with government licenses, that serve a community, which is on the edge of societal norms. They represent a fusion of what’s new on the fringe of society with what’s old in alternative culture. Naturally, this becomes a gathering point of cutting edge society, and a safe space for people that don’t fit into the round hole, or refuse to accept the square peg.
In decades past, the cannabis legalization movement was a huge part of the cultural draw of a headshop. The stores didn’t just provide necessary tools for black market explorers, but they were a safe space for the curious, and advocates alike. A place to gather without judgement or fear. Get your “Legalize It!” merch here! Find out when/where the latest NORML meeting is happening. Headshops had all the information. But now, legalization has come to the entire west coast. There is a feeling of inevitability to full federal decriminalization on the horizon. We won! We did it! So what now? This very question has been the topic of many thoughts, conversations, rants, and musings of mine in the past couple years.
Where does cannabis legalization leave the alternative culture that headshops have served for so long? Is that it? Is that what it was all about? Let’s let the big money green rush companies come in and serve us up a jar of mass marketed, cheaply processed, commoditized cannabis, and we will smile and say, “We did it.” NO! Of course not. The heart of every headshop was not the flyer on the wall, it was always the people inside. The spirit of cannabis legalization did not float away once the mission was accomplished. There will always be a struggle in the wrestling match between society, culture, and government. It was never about the legalization movement. It was always about independent thought, freedom, and counterculture. That feeling hasn’t disappeared simply because cannabis was legalized or decriminalized. This is a lifestyle for the round pegs and square holes.
My headshop life was always about more than cannabis legalization. We are losing respectable outlets for the free exchange of ideas and debate. Much of the public sphere is now lumped into camps and causes, and you better associate with the correct ones or you won't be allowed in the right ones! Headshops are still on the cutting edge of societal progress. Where else can you have BLM feel comfortable to drop off a cause pamphlet in the same hour a freedom of speech patriot drops off a rally flyer? It may be hard for them to see, but a democratic socialist, and a libertarian all shop at, and support the right for a headshop to exist. Smokin Js isn't about being A-political, it's very much political. The hardcore politics of freedom. The freedom to think and speak how you wish, while simultaneously respecting your opposition's ability to do the same, is what makes the Smokin Js lifestyle stand out. Independent thought isn't about making decisions and standing alone on a desolate island. It’s about allowing the free flowing stream of ideas ample room to meander and grow, while dipping your toe in those streams, even if it is counter to your beliefs. Especially if it is counter to your beliefs. In this politically correct, clear as mayonnaise, world of invented causes and created offenses, the headshop still stands out as a gathering place for new ideas and autonomous explorers.
Here’s to the alternative culture created in the past, and to the next generation of counterculture freaks in the future. Headshops like Smokin Js will be there to offer a commercial conduit of legitimacy and expression.