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Head shops come out of the shadows as weed becomes legal in Illinois

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Pete River creates a blown-glass pipe at his shop The Zen Den Glass and Vape in River Grove. Ahead of recreational marijuana sales, some smoke shops are stocking up shelves with products.

CHICAGO — Head shops, once a business catering to the hippie counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, are getting a second life.

The shops, which sell bongs, pipes and other smoking paraphernalia, never really went away. The industry has been evolving quietly for decades as new forms of smoking — like vaping — became popular and women increasingly patronized the shops, experts say.

But with recreational marijuana sales set to begin Jan. 1 in Illinois, local head shops — with names like Smoke Depot and The Zen Den Glass and Vape — could start seeing customers who never thought they’d cross the threshold of a paraphernalia merchant.

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Once stigmatized, head shops are being liberated, and “as recreational marijuana expands into more states, they are going to do whatever to compete,” said Sandy Caputo, director of marketing and sales for HeadQuest, an Albuquerque, New Mexico-based trade magazine.

Store owners are rushing to stock their shelves and possibly set aside space in their shops where customers can smoke, although local governments have been slow to roll out the regulations that would make it possible.

In Chicago, Alderman Gilbert Villegas said he is working with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration to craft a proposal that would permit on-site consumption of marijuana at dispensaries and smoke shops.

Pete River, owner of The Zen Den Glass and Vape in River Grove, would like to create a designated smoking area at his store, which he thinks would attract more customers. But it’s unclear whether such a space would be allowed.

Lawmakers revised the state act that legalized marijuana to allow on-site consumption at dispensaries and smoke shops, but the legislation gives the final say to municipalities. It’s also up to local governments to establish a permitting process.

River Grove hasn’t released any details yet, including zoning ordinances for dispensaries, but village officials are working with the community and the board on a plan, Mayor David Guerin said.

In the meantime, River already has seen an uptick in new customers because The Zen Den is near a medical marijuana dispensary.

River, a glassblower, makes most of the products sold in the store. He also creates custom items for walk-in customers and other head shops in the state.

“In the past two months our sales have gone up,” said River, 35. “I’ve been completing more custom orders for clients.”

Not every local head shop expects a surge in business after Jan. 1.

Charlie Oraham, one of four co-owners of Smoke Depot in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, said it will be business as usual.

“We should see growth the first weeks, but I don’t think it’s as big a deal as people think,” Oraham said. “Unless you are next to a dispensary, I’d be shocked to see a 10% increase in product sales.”

Walking into a head shop, first-time customers might be struck by the large number of smoking products available for sale. The stores are typically small and often have lower light. They display large pipes on the walls and clusters of smaller equipment on glass shelves.

From vape pens to products containing CBD, the compound extracted from the cannabis plant that doesn’t get users high, head shops have adapted their offerings over the past decade in response to consumer trends.

But weed paraphernalia is still a core offering in the $12 billion head shop industry, Caputo said.

Older users still gravitate to pipes for smoking marijuana. The younger generation often consumes marijuana by vaping and through a process called dabbing, Caputo said.

Dabbing involves inhaling a heated cannabis concentrate called wax.

Dean Radley, the owner of, a Chicago-based online retailer of pipes, vaporizers and other marijuana accessories used for smoking, has noticed an uptick in the number of female customers.

“A couple of years ago, about 65% of our customers were male. Now it’s almost an even split. It’s kind of like online dating,” Radley said. “It used to be taboo, but now more women find it acceptable and are getting into it.”

“Our customers value discreet shipping and packaging, the same as it applies to other items they purchase online,” Radley said.

The company studied its clients and found that female shoppers preferred vaporizers compared with other smoking products. Vaporizers like vape pens accounted for 38% of sales in 2019, according to research.

Themed pipes are another trend among users, Radley said.

“We have an Empire Glassworks that looks like (President Donald) Trump. Themed pipes are popular and a little more expensive. The eggplant is another extremely popular one. It’s bit of a fashion piece and a fashion statement. It’s also fun,” Ridley said.


Weeks to go until recreational weed becomes legal in Illinois. Here’s what you need to know.


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