All across America, glass artists have unleashed their imaginations, and the artistry has never been more impressive. However, an entirely different set of skills is required to market the products of this vibrant industry.

 
By Dan Skye
 

For an instructive lesson on the power of our community, let us look to the Lone Star State. Big Mike’s House of Glass sits prominently on the corner of a busy intersection in Lewisville, a suburb of Dallas. Big Mike, the proprietor, had been spending $1,400 a week for local radio spots. But over the course of a few months, his hoped-for increase in store traffic had been negligible.

 

Then, while attending an industry trade show in order to stock up on new glassware for his store, he was stopped dead in his tracks, mesmerized by a reggae-colored bubbler festooned with pot leaves. What he was looking at was actually the Jamaica-themed pipe – blown by brothers Tristan and Banjo, two of the industry’s top artists – that graced our cover back in March ’08. Big Mike was smitten. He plunked down a few thou and carried the pipe back to his store, where he placed it in a special showcase for his customers to admire.

 

In a matter of days, Big Mike noticed a considerable uptick in traffic. The local stoner network was buzzing: “Check out Big Mike’s! He’s got the HIGH TIMES cover pipe!”

 

Big Mike figured that if one fabulous pipe could increase traffic, why not get a whole bunch? He stopped buying radio ads and used the cash instead to purchase more high-end pieces – garish, often outlandish creations suffused with what he calls the “wow!” factor. Even more customers poured in to see his arsenal of sophisticated (yet steeply priced) glass smokeware.

 

Today, Big Mike no longer needs the airwaves to broadcast; the stoner community has tuned in. “The fact is, I don’t get a whole lot of buyers for these pipes,” he explains. “They’re pretty expensive, and I’m not sure if I would even want to sell some of them; it’s kinda my private collection now. The point is, people come in here and ooh and aah over the pipes – it’s a magnet. Then they usually buy a piece that they can afford. In fact, before they leave, everybody seems to buy something or other.”

 

“Something or other” is what you’ll find at Big Mike’s, one of the premier “tobacco accessory” shops in the country. He’s stocked his shelves with every conceivable shape, size and style of pipe, and in every conceivable price range. He even carries primitive metal pipes, circa 1967, for old stoners who never change their ways.

 
 

Business is booming for Big Mike, because he’s rigorously focused his team of six full-time employees on customer service – being friendly as well as knowledgeable about top glass artists and the techniques they use.

 

“Every customer experience has to be a happy one,” he says. “We depend on return business.”

 

He admits to being a “hard man to work for,” but he takes good care of his employees as long as they follow the rules – rules that have allowed Big Mike to remain successful and legal.

 

“I follow the letter of the law,” he says firmly. “Nobody enters who’s under 18. And if you start talking about drugs in any way, we’ll ask you to leave. It doesn’t mean you can’t come back another day, but we won’t tolerate talk of illegal activities – it’s how undercover cops shut you down. All my merchandise is for tobacco use only; that’s what it’s intended for. So if you talk about bongs, we’ll ask you to leave too. I know these are silly word games, but it’s the law.”

 

Some may scoff at the disingenuous nature of doing business in the pipe industry, but the organized advocacy that characterizes the legal cannabis movement is absent on paraphernalia issues. Headshop owners are on the front lines everyday – alone – and they’re bound by strict guidelines. Compliance equals survival.

 

Federal law defines “drug paraphernalia” as products that are primarily intended or designed for ingesting, inhaling or otherwise using controlled substances. Unfortunately, the law leaves the human element out of the equation: You don’t have an illegal intention; the pipe does! Regardless of whether you fill your bowl with tobacco or some other herb mixture, it’s still a marijuana pipe. That’s why the semantical tap dance is necessary. Fundamentally, it seems, the Feds object to color: A traditional tobacco pipe is wood, very adult and distinguished-looking, and usually brown or a black/brown combination. Comic-book colors and adornments like little gremlins or butterflies are forbidden; according to Uncle Sam, only a pot smoker could possibly appreciate such frippery. So dealing in glass paraphernalia can still be dangerous.

 

The entire industry took a hard jolt seven years ago when the US Justice Department mounted Operations Headhunter and Pipe Dreams. Companies with websites that shipped glass over state lines were targeted. Fifty people were busted, and 11 dot-coms were shut down – not much of a victory, but it certainly gave the industry the tremors, especially when the Feds thumped their chest and bellowed: “People selling drug paraphernalia are in essence no different from drug dealers. They are as much a part of drug trafficking as silencers are a part of criminal homicide” (to quote then­–Acting DEA Administrator John B. Brown).

 

Temporarily, commerce went underground. Websites vanished and top artists began selling their pieces on a private basis. But, in reality, nothing has changed too dramatically. In fact, many would say the landscape for the industry has improved. Glass-smokeware competitions are becoming commonplace, while training classes for aspiring glassblowers are packed. And, thankfully, headshops can still do business in America without harassment – provided they operate in a progressive, tolerant community and strive to walk a straight and narrow path.

 

In our current economic climate, it’s significant that the cannabis industry (and all its offshoots) is flourishing, providing jobs and stability for thousands of Americans, even as other businesses flounder. No better example exists than Kaos Glass, a Southern California–based glass-smokeware manufacturer, which has been turning out handsome, solidly made products since 1998. Between glassblowers, salespeople, packers and other assorted workers, Kaos employs a workforce of 50. Many of these are immigrants with families.

 

 

A gentle giant named Tater serves as spokesman for Kaos. “This is a strong industry; this is a real industry,” he says. “It’s real manufacturing in America. We’re still making something – this isn’t a pie-in-the-sky Ponzi scheme. We exist because people like our glass. We’ve found the right price point for what we do. Our quality keeps us in existence.”

 

Kaos focuses on what it sees as the vast middle-range market, what people can realistically afford to spend on a pipe.

 

As Tater says: “I’m a kid in a candy store when I go to an exhibition. I give all praise to what these top artists are doing, but the Kaos business model is not based on that. Our base is what we perceive as the majority of the market. The ultra-high end? It doesn’t move fast enough. It’s just too much to invest in for most headshops.”

 

What you’re going to get from Kaos is a solid and pretty piece of glass. Moreover, the company produces well over 500 different styles of pipe.

 

“This industry is no different from any other,” Tater points out. “There are collectors with the economic means behind them. You see guitars going at auction at a million five – does it really play that much different than the guitar you get for two grand? I don’t know; you tell me. It’s a perception of value, and this industry is no different. Pipes are worth what you’re willing to pay for them. But we own the market for the highest middle-range quality.”

 

 

One of the thorns in the side of the industry is the plague of cheap imported pipes that have made their way into the marketplace. Often manufactured with sweatshop labor and disguised as something other than paraphernalia, these pipes arrive without a bowl hole. Ken of Chameleon Glass in Phoenix, AZ, explains what happens next: “Later, the bowl hole is drilled out, which severely weakens the pipe at precisely the point that it needs to be at its strongest due to the constant heating and cooling of the bowl, which causes expansion and contraction. Drilling ruins pipe strength and leaves glass shards and powder for the user to inhale. The shards and powder, similar to asbestos, cause silicosis – a permanent and debilitating disease similar to mesothelioma.”

 

Customs officials have been more vigilant about imported smokeware in recent years, but it still slips through. Aside from the legal constraints, many would like to see more cooperation between different sectors of the cannabis industry.

 

“People say, ‘Hey, dispensaries are opening up – that must be great for you.’ Well, not really,” Tater says. “They’re squeezing out the traditional retailer, because they don’t value the sale of a pipe as much. If they’re making their cut off of selling the medicine, they’ll throw in a pipe to build brand awareness, but it devalues the overall value of a pipe. You can’t sell medicine at your headshop – you have to keep margin inside of those pipes. But a dispensary uses a pipe as a giveaway; they don’t mind because their margin is made up in the medicine that they’re selling. What is the general quality of these things? Not good.”

 

But America leads the world in glass artistry, and the pipemakers, specifically, have revolutionized and modernized the craft of glassblowing. Even so, with glass smokeware as the poor stepchild of the legalization movement, discretion remains of the utmost importance. Medical marijuana is gaining acceptance, but the ornate bong that one might use to medicate still scares people.

 

“Seventy percent of the country favors some type of legalization and taxing,” opines Tater. “How many more people can we afford to put in prison? How many poor people do we, as taxpayers, pay to put in prison – or how many people do we actually put to work? Kaos is proof of that. Everybody works; everybody works hard; everybody contributes. This is a lifeline for so many different families and people. We’re just not doing anything wrong.”

 

Visit Big Mike’s House of Glass at 101 E. SW Parkway, Lewisville, TX 75067, or call 469-671-0033. Visit ogkaosglass.com.

 

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