How many smoke shops does Greater Boston need?
The question is gaining urgency as stores with “adult only” signs in the windows pop up all over town, to the dismay of some neighbors, and what was once an indie industry with a Bob Marley vibe has been infiltrated by local chains with leaders who toss around terms like “shareholders” and “economies of scale.”
Smoke shops, long a counterculture staple of college towns, legally selling pipes and hookahs and other paraphernalia under the pretense that it could be used for tobacco, have been around for decades. But with marijuana now legal in Massachusetts and vaping becoming a booming global business, they are rapidly multiplying.
In the last 18 months, as legalized marijuana came to Massachusetts, Chelsea-based Boston Smoke Shop has gone from eight stores to 21 in Greater Boston and is scouting for additional Massachusetts locations.
New Hampshire-based Bluemoon Smoke Shop has five local locations. The newest store opened in West Roxbury in early 2018, and another may open in 2019, according to an operations manager who gave his name as Sam J.
Boston-based City Smoke Shop opened its first store, on Newbury Street, in March, a second in the North End in October, and a third, also on Newbury Street, in late November.
Canton-based King Smoke Shop opened its first store in the summer of 2016 and now has five locations, with two more, in South Boston and North Dartmouth, poised to open.
On Newbury Street, smoke shops now outnumber Starbucks 4-to-2, or 5-to-2 if you count Hempest, which doesn’t sell tobacco products but does sell hemp clothing, vaping devices, and cannabis-related paraphernalia.
“We were here for 27 years, and then all the smoke shop revolution took over,” said Hempest’s owner, Mitch Rosenfield.
The products smoke shops sell are legal. But despite operating above board, smoke shops’ sketchy reputation, stemming from the days when pot was illegal in Massachusetts, remains in the minds of many.
Additionally, some neighbors fear the stores will attract drug users or will apply for licenses to sell pot for recreational use. The stores are not licensed to sell marijuana now. (Boston Smoke Shop, King Smoke Shop, and City Smoke Shop all told the Globe they have no plans to apply for a license to sell marijuana. A message left for Bluemoon Smoke Shop was not returned.)
The stores are also disliked for another reason. Even though a person needs to be 21 or older to enter, their prominent, come-hither “Juul sold here” signs are advertising a product that parents and educators are frantically trying to combat, worried that the rapid rise of vaping threatens a whole new generation of teens with nicotine addiction.
“You think about the great lengths we have gone as a city to ban smoking, and all of a sudden smoke shops are proliferating,” said Boston City Councilor At-Large Michael Flaherty.
When a sign for King Smoke Shop went up in South Boston on the night of Veterans Day, with no notice, locals started calling and e-mailing Flaherty and City Councilor Edward Flynn of District 2
“It’s 50 yards from a school,” Flynn said.
In some Boston neighborhoods, smoke shops can open “as of right,” with no zoning relief needed, but Flynn said he and Flaherty are considering ways to make sure there is a community process.
On Newbury Street, the reaction to a new City Smoke Shop, which opened in a garden-level space, directly underneath a modern art gallery, was equally swift and unhappy.
“Someone just texted me a picture [of the City Smoke Shop signs] today,” said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president and executive director of the Back Bay Association, a business group. “Property owners are complaining.”
The smoke shops’ bad rep is recognized by at least one budding smoke shop tycoon. Boston Smoke Shop CEO Francine Whu, a former corporate attorney, said no landlord in Newton Center will rent her space.
“I think I’d have to sell my firstborn to get in Newton Centre,” she said. And she knows why: “Smoke shops can make you feel that just by walking in you’re committing a crime.”
She is trying to change that, she said, and hopes to make Boston Smoke Shop locations so consistent that shoppers know what they’re getting when they walk in, much the way they do with a hotel chain.
“We’re trying to be more corporate,” she said.
Suffice it to say that Greg Cummings, the owner of Buried Treasures, an early Boston headshop, with current locations in Allston and the Fenway, is going for a different feel.
He’s been in business since the mid-1980s and prides himself on selling not just smoking and vaping paraphernalia, but vintage rock posters, Indian tapestries with sun and moon designs, and tie-dye hoodies and blacklights.
He contrasted his shops with the chains. “It’s like a Starbucks kind of thing,” he said. “It belittles the whole thing, as far as making it so that it’s nothing special.”
He also bemoaned a bygone era. “Bob Marley used to be big,” he said. “Now [shoppers] don’t even know who he is. Or was.”Beth Teitell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @BethTeitell.