Image courtesy of New York Natives, photographer: Laura Hill Image courtesy of New York Natives, photographer: Laura Hill
By Laura Hill

When I was a kid, smoke shops were everywhere. Like the dingy and ubiquitous Bodega, the humble New York smoke shop seemed to transcend zip codes. There were just as many on the Upper East Side as there were on the Lower East Side. Ok, maybe the offerings differed slightly — more water pipes and sundry, “Tobacco Use Only” products downtown — but back in the day, the local smoke shop was the place to buy cigarettes, lighters, and the occasional smutty magazine.

To me they were socially marginal and somehow sort of naughty, and I liked that. They occupied a space between legal and illegal — and I’ve always liked wandering through liminal spaces.

Years ago, my family’s company started designing for Zippo, and I wound up doing some of that work. I can’t describe the thrill I felt when I first saw my own design in the window of a Chelsea smoke shop; the joy was intense and somehow brought all the ‘cool’ outsider-ness of those places well within my reach.

Image courtesy of New York Natives, photographer: Laura Hill

Image courtesy of New York Natives,
Photographer: Laura Hill

After a lifetime in New York, I know that everything this city doesn’t kill and discard gets translated from one era to the next, as it mutates over time. And while New York regularly trashes stuff I like from the past, apparently the New York smoke shop is a keeper.

Today, with ‘low-end’ products in the $15 – $35 price range and ‘high-end’ products topping out at $700 (WTF?!?!), it ain’t your mama’s smoke shop anymore!

Cigarettes — a former mainstay — are not quite what they were, and at nearly 15 bucks a pack, even if you don’t want to quit, you may have to so you can eat. Yes, you can still buy your smokes at any of them, but the humble New York City smoke shop has indeed evolved with the times.

Image courtesy of New York Natives, photographer: Laura Hill

Image courtesy of New York Natives
Photographer: Laura Hill

They still sell all manner of “Tobacco Use Only” gear — from water pipes to hand-blown, hand-held beauties that look like something you’d buy on the street in Venice. But these days it’s all about VAPOR baby.

I knew exactly ZERO about vaping and vapor products, until I recently had a little chat with Sammy and Joe Dekmak at Village Bazaar (351 6th Avenue). These guys have been in the smoke shop biz forever, and I’ve known Sammy since I was a teenager. Tabaco has not, in fact, gone the way of the dodo in NYC; it’s just been fashionably concealed and made surprisingly sweeter smelling. But don’t think ‘Big Tobacco’ isn’t all over it. They too have to change with the times, and if the modern consumer wants their tobacco in what look like lilliputian Nespresso inserts, than they shall have it!

I guess the question is, “What’s next?” None of us need The New York Times to report that Marijuana is in our near future, and represents ginormous tax revenue for the State of New York — one that is being realized by Colorado, California, and Washington.

On July 5, 2014, Governor Cuomo signed a limited medical marijuana bill into law, making New York the 23rd state with such laws in place. But legally speaking, NY is pretty old-school, and moving the issue from limited use for debilitating or life threatening illness to entertainment will take some time.

But that’s ok. From the look of it, NYC has plenty of savvy smoke shops, moving stealthily more mainstream and becoming ever more like the chic little boutique dispensaries in Colorado which look more like specialty soap shops than anything else.

Like anything that wants to make it here, flexibility is key. You can’t hold on too tight. Ready for its next iteration, the NYC smoke shop looks poised to survive the test of time.

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