Niche business: running a smoke shop


I was walking down the street recently and saw Sarah sitting on the patio in front of The Smoking Octopus. It is a smoke shop, and I wondered about the difficulty of opening a store like that. Sarah owns the shop, and she was friendly and casual but also spoke with the nonchalant seriousness of an experienced business owner.

I started out working for another smoke shop in Fairborn about four years ago. I was into hookahs before I started I had a friend from Turkey and he was really big into hookah. He asked me to smoke with him. It was the first time I did and ever since then I’ve loved it. That’s what interested me about working there.

It was fun to go to work – I didn’t see it like a job anymore and thought it would be fun to do [professionally]. I worked my way up and ended up managing that shop for about three years. My manager there actually offered me a position running his hookah bar, which was down the street in Beavercreek. I managed the hookah bar and ended up owning it. The land the bar was on went up for sale, so it was either I stay there and ride it out until someone buys it or sell it then and take the money and run. So I sold it. With the money I made, I moved down here. I originally wanted to open a hookah bar. But due to zoning issues I couldn’t, with the building being so close to a church and a school. So I took the information I learned managing a smoke shop and said, ‘I’m going to do that instead.’ I’ve been here for a year and a half. I just turned 23 this month.

I love the town, I loved the people, the building my shop is in is amazing. I’ve grown up around here and this was always my favorite building in town. It took me about half a year to find a new spot after I sold the hookah bar. Thankfully my parents have been very supportive. Without them, I wouldn’t be here right now. I went to my parents’ house for Christmas and one of the last gifts they handed me was this little box. I opened it up and there was a picture of this building. Best Christmas present ever.

Opening the shop went pretty smooth. The only thing you have to do [unique to a store like this] is apply for your tobacco license. That’s though the State. It takes a while for them to process your application, but once you have that, it’s legal for you to sell tobacco products in your store.

Getting the tobacco license wasn’t too difficult for me. I used a lot of advice from my boss at the old place, because I told him I had interest in opening a smoke shop. I asked him what he did and he helped guide me through. Without that advice, it probably would have been a lot more difficult because I wouldn’t have known who to go to and how to talk to them about opening it. Being able to rent from somebody who allows smoking is important too. For a lot of smoke shops, it’s kind of grandfathered in that you can smoke inside the store, but you have to make sure that it’s ok to smoke inside the building with the landlord.

There is a lot of legal terminology you have to learn to work in a smoke shop. You have to come in here knowing what to say to the workers here. It’s not a ‘bong,’ it’s a ‘water pipe.’ If someone came in here right now and used a street word for something, I legally have to tell them to leave my store. It’s that serious. (Laughs) People like to joke about having signs everywhere that say ‘for tobacco use only’ – you have to have those in front of everything, especially the glass and the papers. Some shops are really strict – you say one wrong thing and they’ll kick you out.

And IDs: you have to respect the ID policy. I have signs everywhere – if you don’t have one, I won’ sell anything to you.

Every now and then you’ll get your troublemakers. You have your groups – you have your disrespectful patrons and you have your patrons that know what it’s all about it, get what they need, and leave. It’s usually the kids that have just turned 18 that are the hardest to deal with. They think that because you work in smoke shop that you’re going to be cool with them acting stupid. They’ll joke around about smoking and ask if I know where to buy drugs, and I tell them I have no idea. They’ll have to go ask someone else that question. I’ve had to kick people out before.

The weekends are a little more difficult because you have your out-of-town crowd. I had this lady in her mid-twenties come in not that long ago. She said, can I smoke in here? I said, yeah, you can smoke cigarettes in here. She said, no, can I smoke a joint in here? I said no, you can’t do that here. She said, really? I said, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. She gets really lippy with me and she pulls it out of her purse and acts like she’s about to light it. I said, you either leave my store right now or I’m going to have to call the police. She got all mad and slammed my door and walked away.

You will get undercovers that come in every now and then. Usually you can pick them out if they ask a lot of questions but don’t really show interest in buying anything or ask you to get anything out. They try to catch you on your terminology, mainly, and they ask you about things that are difficult to describe to try to test you. I’ve never had any problem getting through it with them, nobody here has.

But one experience I really enjoyed involved these five older ladies that came in after eating in the restaurant next store and asked me what a hookah was. I explained it to them and asked if they wanted to try it. They said, yeah, I think so. It took them about ten minutes to pick out a flavor. I prepared the hookah for them and they sat out here and smoked it. They wanted me to take pictures of them to send to their grandkids, like “Look what I’m doing!” (Laughs) They bought shirts from the shop that say “Put that in your pipe and smoke it” on the back.

I was surprised, being in a small town, at how close I’ve gotten with the people I’ve met in the shop. I have a lot of regulars that I’ve become really good friends with. Because back where I worked before, I would recognize people’s faces but I’ve really gotten to build some great friendships out of running the store. I’ve made a lot of good connections with people, like glass blowers. I travel around to a lot of music festivals too and that’s where I get a lot of my local glass connections.

The weekends are a little hectic, as they are more touristy times. It get can pretty busy in there. We always have two people working in there. The street fairs are insane. We have to have at least four or five people here. We took a picture from up above during the last street fair and I think there were eighty-three people in the store. But I enjoy the busy days. It makes the time go by quicker. Bad days are rainy days. Not a lot of foot traffic. Parking’s kind of limited right now and not a lot of people are going to want to walk up here in the pouring rain. But if it’s nice like this, business is always good.

I’ve been really into business ever since I started managing the old shop. I’m going to Wright State for business management. I went through my first year of college not knowing what I wanted to do, but being able to manage the shop and then owning the hookah bar convinced me that I really like the business-side of running a store. It was probably one of the most stressful times ever, because I was doing both. I’d get two hours of sleep a day – the hookah bar was open til 4 a.m. and I’d have to open the smoke shop at 9. It sucked but it paid off. I’m very appreciative to have had those opportunities.

The hand pipes are some of our best sellers, as well as the shi-shas and hookah tobacco. We also have a cigar humidor in there too, and cigar sales have really picked up a lot. We’re actually about to expand the humidor and install another one in there because we’ve had so many requests for new cigars. My shelves are stocked completely full. That’s been nice – people who live in town say they don’t want to drive all the way to Fairborn to get their cigars. I have a list of requests that people can add to, that way I can stock cigars for them. Every day in the smoke-shop world there’s something new, something new out on the market. It’s a learning process of figuring out all the new things that are coming out. So that keeps it interesting, there’s always something new to learn.

As far as all the local artists, they’ll come here with a bunch of briefcases when you call them. I get to pick and choose what I want. Having the tobacco license is what allows you to buy everything in bulk. You can’t go through a wholesaler without your tobacco license. There’s no way I’d be able to stock my store paying full price for everything. I go through maybe four different distributors because there’s never just one that has everything you need.

I’m very open about cutting deals with people. I’ll definitely help you out. I know a lot of smoke shops can be overpriced. Now, when I go into other smoke shops, I judge them on the prices they charge, because I know what they got [their merchandise] for. I don’t want to be that person that rips you off. I do package deals and give ten percent off with any student or military ID. I’ll run sales through the weekend and stuff like that every now and then.

I take off about one day a week. Other than that I enjoy being here. Most of my employees are friends and family. My fiancée and I run it together, and the lady that just left is my mom. She works for me in the mornings. When I’m away from it for too long, I feel weird. I just got back from a week and a half-long vacation so I was eager to get back here. If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. Finding that niche makes it a lot easier to have a job. I worked guest services at a hotel for four years and then I worked at Bath and Bodyworks, which is the worst job in the world. Having that many bad experiences working for someone, I wanted to be my own boss. I’ve never had one I liked. I wanted to do everything the opposite of how they did. I can treat my employees they way I wanted to be treated in my past jobs.

This interview originally appeared in an abbreviated form at the Yellow Springs News.

2 Responses to Niche business: running a smoke shop

  1. Hey, Im only 24, I turn 25 in 2 weeks. your story will inspired me and make me feel good about the choice I made to start this smoke shop

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