The Biz loves puns. Not so much because we like to think we’re clever, but because even bad puns tend to draw in finicky readers and keep them reading a bit longer.
And after sex shops and fat farms, what business could possibly inspire more puns than a head shop?
Unfortunately for The Biz, Wonderland Tobacco and Gifts at 33 Patton Ave. in downtown Asheville isn’t your stereotypical head shop. Instead, think “boutique” (in fact, stores the caliber of Wonderland are more properly called “alternative stores” or “tobacco-accessory shops”).
First of all, the street-front window display, interior decor and lighting are tip offs that Wonderland, which opened four months ago, is not the type of joint your old burned-out hippie uncle might have frequented back in the day. The window display features a large, beautifully sculpted mushroom, a la Alice in Wonderland, while in the middle of the store’s floor is a towering, carefully rendered tree, each constructed specially for the store by West Palm Beach, Fla., artist Tommy Roach (his real name, by the way).
Owner Huey Paul, who runs the store with his wife, Lesley, and their 33-year-old daughter, Abbe, notes that the motif often disorients unsuspecting parents into believing the place is a toy store.
Indeed, as The Biz exited the store one recent day (following an interview, not to make a purchase, mind you), a couple with young son in tow entered Wonderland with the admonishment, “Um, that ain’t a toy store, folks.” They left less than 10 seconds later, smiling and telling The Biz, “Thanks for the warning!”
“We put a sign in the window that this is a ‘tobacco shop’ to try to give them some kind of a hint,” notes Paul.
And in many respects, it is just a tobacco shop, with a large selection of fine cigars, traditional pipes and tobaccos, high-end humidors and the like. It also sells gifts, such as “tree-less” greeting cards made from sugar cane, T-shirts, Grateful Dead stickers, figurines, candles, imported incense and other straight-laced goodies fit for the masses, most of them top-of-the-line quality.
But the centerpiece of the store is its collection of glass-blown pipes, including water pipes, not to mention hookahs and various paraphernalia that, yes, are intended for purely tobacco-centered pursuits, but also are highly prized by discriminating users of more illicit substances.
(Note: While local law-enforcement authorities typically cast a blind eye toward such establishments—there are nearly a half-dozen head shops in the downtown area alone, not to mention numerous paraphernalia-selling convenience stores—the feds are less enamored of the trade, says Paul. That’s why he says that any mention—even the barest whiff of a mention—that customers intend to use the store’s products for ingesting illegal substances will result in no sale and a quick exit from the store premises.)
In the United States, head shops sprang up in the 1960s amidst the nation’s burgeoning hippie subculture. Typically, they were situated in the seedier parts of town and were often shabby and poorly run. Wonderland is far from that type of store, notes the 60-year-old Paul, who opened his first Wonderland store in 1974 in his hometown of Philadelphia after originally selling incense, pipes and other paraphernalia wholesale. That store was soon followed by a second one called “South Street,” which burned to the ground thanks to a careless, cigarette-smoking night manager. After he and his family relocated to West Palm Beach, Paul established another Wonderland store there. Both stores have since been sold and are still in operation, notes Paul. The latest store in Asheville “is probably my last fling,” he says, noting that daughter Abbe will likely assume control of the store within the next five to seven years. She says she’s been hanging around the stores and learning her father’s trade since she was a little girl.
“I love it,” she says.
While the locations have changed over the years, Paul’s retail philosophy hasn’t. The key to success, he says, is to run a shop like a boutique or any other reputable retail operation and not like old traditional head shops, with their reputations of seediness, back-room drug dealing and cheap products.
“They were run by hippies who didn’t know how to run a business,” he says of the early shops. “They were taking the cash out of the cash register as quickly as it was coming in.
“I’ve always been one to feel that people should come into my shop and feel like they were walking into Macy’s—just a nice clean, retail shop where they don’t have to feel like a criminal. It doesn’t have to be dark; it doesn’t have to be dirty; it doesn’t have to be dingy. Everything in the showcase should be nice and aligned, and you should make it a nice shopping experience.”
Thanks to that philosophy, Wonderland past and present has attracted a clientele that ranges from 18 to over 60, male and female, of different races and ethnicities and a range of income levels “from bartenders to barristers.” In West Palm Beach, Paul notes, he often drew clients from tony, blueblood Palm Beach, winter home to the likes of the Trumps and Kennedys. On his store shelves, he points to his high-end line of candles and his $11 bags of fine incense that draw people from far outside Asheville, not to mention such seemingly everyday products such as his lines of Calibri and Dupont lighters that fetch upwards of $200. Even his selection of glass pipes, most of them hand-created by artisans, have price tags as high as $600.
“The clientele is unbelievable in this business,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed in this business.”
And the clientele has come full circle, he adds. Many of those grungy stoners from the ‘60s have grown up and now live in places like Palm Beach and Asheville. They not only still enjoy a smoke, they also have investment accounts and a taste for the finer things unattainable in their youth.
“They’re the people with black American Express cards with million-dollar limits,” he says. “They don’t feel like going to other shops that are dirty and dingy. But they love coming to my store.”
• Mountain BizWorks makes strides: In 2007, Mountain BizWorks reports, the nonprofit assisted 744 entrepreneurs with business training, consultation and financing, which led to the creation of 135 new businesses and 230 business expansions in Western North Carolina. As a result, 520 new jobs have been created as well as 372 sustained.
In other BizWorks news, the board has approved an increase in the maximum small-business-loan amount from $35,000 to $50,000. Mountain BizWorks’ lending is designed to finance small-business start-ups and expansions when traditional bank lending may not be available. The increase will allow the organization to assist a more varied client base.
Business owners interested in the lending program should contact their closet regional office. Mountain BizWorks has offices in Asheville (253-2834), Sylva (631-0292) and Hendersonville (692-5826).
• Job fair: Act fast, jobseekers. The 2nd Annual Homecoming Job Fair will be held on Thursday, Dec. 27, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Biltmore Square Mall. The fair will showcase regional employment opportunities in advanced manufacturing, health services and other tech-based industries. Applications will be taken on-site, and job seekers are invited to bring their resume for distribution.