April 15, 2010

Ithaca is … High

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Entering one of the many head shops on the Ithaca Commons can feel a bit like stepping into an adult version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. On a brilliantly sunny Saturday, you can watch the eclectic crowds flowing in and out — nose-ringed teens, suited businessmen, college frat boys and nostalgic, aging hippies alike.

No matter their age — whether this is their first visit or their hundredth — they look up in child-like wonder at the polka-dotted bubblers, the elephant-shaped bowls and the eight-gauged octo-bongs, stretching their fingers out like Augustus Gloop towards a magical chocolatey river.

Bickering parents up for Cornell Days shut up to stare at a two-foot glass Buddha, evidently dumbfounded by “how it works.” Luckily, their daughter is in a world of her own, forehead pressed up against a sea of wild­ly multi-colored pipes, the thrill of going to college next year just beginning to set in. Ithaca’s head shops, regardless of your personal sentiment, are often thought of as a defining feature of the city’s main tourist attraction — the downtown Commons. And, following basic supply and demand principles, the stores are only set to expand, with two more stores to open Tuesday.

No BUDdying Allowed

“Hey, excuse me, can I see this?” The head shop staffer, who requested anonymity, stalled his incipient conversation with me to attend to this inquiring customer. He climbed up a few steps and pulled down a truly massive glass bong designed to look like something out of my Asian religions class. “That’ll get you fucked up!” the shopper exclaimed, laughing. “Yeah man!” the worker responded, with equal enthusiasm. He looked at me — as I fruitlessly tried to hide the Cornell insignia on my Jansport backpack — before turning back to the customer. Pause. “… Off of tobacco, of course,” the staffer added. “Of course.”

This type of interaction is fairly commonplace in the downtown head shops, as New York State and Federal law compels them to ascribe to a great deal of euphemistic bullshit.

Marijuana is, of course, illegal and thus selling paraphernalia created to consume it is illegal, too.

The head shops therefore have to pretend their products are for the mass-consumption of other products — creating an often comic but not always understood subtext for their “glassware.” All of those silvery-shiny pieces of glass should be referred to as “spoons, peanuts or pipes,” according to Ithaca Glass’s co-owner Alyssa Hayes.

Don’t ever get caught confusing that bong up there for what it really is, a “Reticello b—” which, according to ArtTownGifts.com, is a special form of “glass canework.” And if you mention the word “pot,” “marijuana,” or any of cannabis’ many synonyms, you will have to leave the store.

“People are surprisingly stupid [about not openly talking about marijuana],” said one head shop worker who also declined allowing his name to be used in the story. He cited stories in which customer have asked him directly for drugs.

He urged his customers to either “stop being dumb” or “move to California or Colorado.” “When you work in a store like this, you can’t be surprised,” he continued, saying the strangest occurrence he has witnessed was when a former soldier claimed the Army performed “experimental drug testing” on him.

Hayes stressed that her store was for “glass art,” but added that she’d come across scores of ignorant customers, too, particularly “dumbass … little kids under 18 who try to buy pipes.” She claimed one customer even “started to light up” inside the store, as if her shop had been recently annexed by the Netherlands. But it’s not just explicit references to weed or smoking that are major verbal infractions at head shops.

The word “bong,” contains a special stigma, too — the He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named of head shops, if you will. “[You have to go] if you say the word that begins with b and rhymes with song,” Hayes said, calling the practice “completely asinine.”

Local, Green Stuff

Hayes stressed that glass blowing still “provides many family jobs,” and that a move to exported products could be detrimental to these jobs. At stake in the future of locally made versus imported glass is an industry that has been around nearly as long as Cornell.

According to the Corning Museum of Glass’s website, the glass industry “has been around since the late 1800’s.” Some head shop workers speculated that this nearby presence of Corning’s — and, much earlier, Ithaca’s — glassware led to the current prevalence of head shops. Yet it’s impossible to accept the presence of the head shops without acknowledging another prevalent strain in Ithaca history — that which evokes the 60’s and the Grateful Dead in ’77.

When asked what caused this “liberal” strain in Ithaca, one longtime resident in Autumn Leaves Bookstore speculated that the “presence of Cornell and Ithaca College” were essential in “building a critical mass … [of] progressive ideas.” She said the size of the universities “drew people to Ithaca.” The same could undoubtedly be said for the head shops.

The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side

So, which head shop is for you? “If you’re an angry hippie, you go to 3-D Light; if you’re a chill hippie, you go to Jabberwock,” explained one local Ithaca teen, giggling with her friend.

There may be something for everyone, not just hippies. Hayes went through how each head shop had more or less “carved out their niche.” She said 3-D Light was mainly for “old school rockers,” that Jabberwock was “hippie heaven” but also called it “family-friendly,” that the recently opened store was “imported glass,” and that her store was “for normal people.”

When the store emptied out and only I remained, the anonymous staffer previously mentioned explained why you will never hear the word “bong” in a shop full of them. “If someone says ‘bong,’” the staffer began, dropping his voice to a whisper to intone the word, “and there’s an undercover cop in the store … the officer has the right to search the entire store.”


It is not only the shops that seem magical, but also the stores’ sales, which have remained incredibly high (no pun intended) through an otherwise tough time for the Commons. “

This is a largely recession-free business,” said one head-shop cashier, dreadlocks sheathed by a Rasta hat. “Everybody’s gotta smoke,” he added.

The worker, who decided to remain anonymous, also speculated that “people smoke more … when businesses [are] struggling.” All four stores I went to — there are five within a 15 second walk of each other — said sales were going strong.

Most were extremely confident that business would not be hurt by the two head shops that plan to open around Apr. 20, joining one that only opened a few months ago.

Hayes, co-owner of Ithaca Glass, was the rare exception — though she made a compelling case that the other shops might want to worry about, too. “Flabbergasted” by the opening of yet another two stores, she worried whether they would “ruin the market” selling “really cheap stuff.” Hayes, who makes much of the glassware herself with her husband, frets other shops will drive down prices through imports, though she maintains that she makes the best product.

Ithaca Glass is the only store that sells exclusively local products; the other stores sell a mix of local and imported; and, although they were not contacted in time for this story, Hayes believes the new stores will only sell imported products. Hayes also said that she “hope[s] [the new stores] don’t cause a community backlash.” With two teenagers of her own, she said she was anxious about the possibility that might be families concerned with the Commons being overrun by head shops. “We need other businesses here … like clothing stores and nice restaurants,” Hayes said. Still, a cashier at Jabberwock said, “We’re not worried … we’ve been here so long … we have an established, loyal customer base.”

He slandered the new businesses, saying,“These assholes come into an area, find what’s making money and undercut the price [to] take all the business.” He said that they also “shut down two shops in Scranton.” But, despite this, he felt that Jabberwock would be untouched by the competition, regardless of lower prices. “We’re a community space,” his friend and co-worker, chimed in.

A cashier, requesting neither his name nor store be printed, echoed this sentiment. “We do our own thing,” he said. “Everybody has different stuff … competition will be good for business. [We have people] coming from Elmira, Syracuse.” Still, Hayes remains concerned that demand for products will be unable to keep pace with seven head shops.

Home Grown

Worries about new head shops in Ithaca are intrinsically linked with the potentially changing busines model of their products. One head-shop staffer explained how “just in the last two years” Chinese manufacturers have begun producing glassware “that can match our [home made products]” at a fraction of the price. But when asked if his store was considering switching to more Chinese-imported products, he said, “Fuck no, we’re supporting local citizens.” RLD

Original Author: Jeff Stein