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Wicker Park-Bucktown Sees Influx of Smoke Shops

Their display cases are filled with elaborate pieces of glass from India, New York, California and around the world. Their open glass shelves flaunt elaborate pieces that are hand-blown into whimsical designs and spun with vibrant colors. A light musky odor reminiscent of the past hangs in the air. Beautiful things that cannot be touched are everywhere.

Although it may seem like it, this is not a museum showcasing ancient artifacts or a gallery featuring expensive vases. It is a smoke shop. Smoke shops, or head shops as they are sometimes called, carry many varieties of tobacco and cigars and a plethora of devices that relate to their use, such as bongs, pipes, filters and ashtrays. They are frequented by hookah and marijuana smokers in need of artistic water pipes, or bongs.

In the past few years, shop owners have realized that Wicker Park-Bucktown’s edgy, youthful and growing population is fertile soil for planting new smoke shops, as their growing numbers demonstrate.

A few years ago, there were just “a couple” of these shops, according to the Wicker Park-Bucktown Chamber of Commerce Assistant Program Manager Eleanor Mayer. In April 2009, Ash’s Bucktown Smoke Shop opened near the trendy intersection of North, Damen and Milwaukee avenues. Pipes and Stuff X appeared nearby in March.

Malabar Hookahs in three different sizes
Image via Wikipedia

“We were the first one,” said Magid Ali, an employee of Ash’s Bucktown Smoke Shop, which sits just steps from the intersection. The shop has occupied this prime location since April 2009, according to EveryBlock. Far from the fashions usually on display in the area, 32-year-old Ali, who is from India, wore traditional long black robes. According to Ali, Ash, the owner, decided to open a shop in the neighborhood “from looking at the crowd. [There are] more hippie people over here.” He said that the area’s population growth was also a factor.

Mayer said there are at least three to four or more smoke shops in the neighborhood now. However, the newest shops have avoided the massive intersection and have settled in a different area.

In the southeastern portion of Wicker Park, smoke shop activity is suddenly prominent. A growing population is encouraging bar and apartment development along Division Street as it becomes Wicker Park-Bucktown’s next hot spot.

In early June, the section of Wicker Park near Division Street had no tobacco-related businesses. Now there are three. That month, Smoke Times opened near Division and Wolcott streets. Smoker’s Place on North Ashland Avenue was filling its shelves by July, and was only a short walk southeast from Smoke Times. Two months later and less than a block west of Smoke Times on Division Street, Ash, the owner of Ash’s Bucktown, opened Ash’s Wicker Park Tobacconist. The smoke shops on Division Street are hoping to emulate the success of their peers at North, Damen and Milwaukee avenues.

As an occasional marijuana and cigar smoker, David M., who wished to remain anonymous, said he has purchased smoking pieces from shops on Division. The proximity of the shops to this 25-year-old’s Wicker Park apartment encouraged him to buy, because it is “easy” and “relatively available.” He has noticed “20, 30-year-olds” like him and people who tend to be “open to alternative ideas” are moving to Wicker Park-Bucktown. He describes this demographic as “offbeat, artsy, indie, whatever you wanna call it, emo.”

Manager Mohamad Zaman said Smoke Times has seen all types of people since its opening in June. The customers are purchasing cigars from the shop’s 50 different kinds, in addition to cigarettes and rolling tobacco. Speaking on breaks between helping groups of younger people purchasing cigarettes, Zaman said that these younger customers typically buy cigarettes or are transitioning to rolling tobacco into cigarettes themselves. Zaman said Smoke Times was busier before competition arrived, because now “there are so many [smoke shops] popping up.”

Because its owner opened Ash’s Wicker Park Tobacconist less than a block away from Smoke Times on Division, Ash’s Wicker Park employee Wasim Mohammed agreed with Zaman, saying both businesses are “definitely” affected. Ash’s Wicker Park opened in September.

Sensual music drifted through Smoker’s Place as owner Paul Swiecki shared a struggle his 5-month-old shop is facing at its location on the southern edge of Wicker Park, at Ashland Avenue between Augusta and Chicago avenues.

“It’s not easy to open a store over here because if you go two blocks east [there are] different people, two blocks west is totally different people.” Swiecki is referring to more ethnically diverse areas that aren’t populated by the same young, white crowd that patronize smoke shops, especially in an unstable economy. However, the “young people” have supported his business. With his low prices, he hopes to attract customers who already smoke cigars and pipe tobacco.

Ali, the employee of Ash’s Bucktown, the first shop that opened, said a variety of customers come to the shop. “Somebody wants a hookah [an Indian instrument used for smoking], somebody wants a pipe, somebody wants tobacco, somebody wants shisha [tobacco mixture smoked with a hookah],” he said.

Pipes and Stuff X opened near Ash’s Bucktown Smoke Shop, at North, Damen and Milwaukee avenues, in March. Ali admitted all the new shops “might have” affected his store’s business. However, the shop is still open until 2 a.m. on weekdays and 4 a.m. on weekends to accommodate customer traffic, later than any shop in the area.

Twenty-four-year-old Liam Dumenjich, an Ash’s Wicker Park customer, said he tried a hookah for the first time in 2005 and his first visit to a smoke shop was in 2006. He visits smoke shops in the area “once every couple weeks, just to buy shisha and coals” for his hookah. Hookah is appealing to Dumenjich because it is “safer” than smoking cigarettes and is “relaxing.” He thinks that these shops are popular in Wicker Park-Bucktown because younger people that make up so much of the area “have their own ways of being social.”

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