In the late-‘80s, my parents familiarized me with the relatively passé term “headshop.” They were ex-hippies who liked to reminisce during casual listens of Dark Side of the Moon. Had it not been for these moments of family bonding, I’d have remained ignorant of the term until well into my late teens. A lot of my friends were into the rave scene, possibly the late-‘90s substitute for the hippie scene, but no one ever mentioned a headshop. After a generational gap that witnessed the term “headshop” fade largely from popular vocabulary, it has in recent years returned to our collective lexicon. But while the word has been reintegrated, the meaning behind it remains foggy. Today we explore the history of America’s iconic headshop as a cog in a cultural cycle that’s rolling into our time nearly 50 years later and answer one of our frequently asked questions: “Why is it called a head shop?”
While the word “headshop” may have found its way back into popular vocabulary, the origin of the term may still seem elusive and confusing. Some claim “head” is actually an acronym for “He Eats Acid Daily.” Others may relate the term to a popular nickname for fans of the Grateful Dead; dead heads. But more than likely, the term actually found its seeds in slang that originated in 1913. This year marked the first documentation of someone pairing the name of a drug with the word “head” to denote a subject as an addict. In the ‘60s, when “acid heads” and “pot heads” became a pronounced aspect of American counterculture, headshops appeared to cater to those who wanted to improve their experiences. The song “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane repeats the line “feed your head” at the song’s closing; a challenge to the listener to expand his/her mind. In essence, the mission of a smoke head shop was to help its clients “feed their heads.”
If you’re asking yourself “what is a head shop?” it’s essentially a store that sells products related to cannabis and tobacco consumption, but it wasn’t always that way. Headshops began as shops specializing in selling various drug paraphernalia. You could pretty much count on your local headshop to carry all sorts of goodies to keep your intoxication optimal from water pipes and rolling papers to psychedelic visual aids and incense. Of course, the drugs themselves were not part of a headshop’s inventory. In fact, federal and state laws often found headshops skirting violations through sheer creativity. To create the impression that the glass pipes and water pipes decorating the headshop shelves were definitely not intended for drug use, certain incriminating words were banned from use within the store. Uttering one of these suggestive words would often buy you an immediate ejection from the headshop or, in severe cases, a permanent ban. In states that have yet to legalize marijuana, this vocabulary-based ban remains in full effect. Headshops in the late ‘60s also became important points of countercultural support, offering a safe haven for distributing underground publications that questioned authority or promoted esoteric spiritual practices. This political poignancy was gradually watered down. By the early ‘90s, the headshop aesthetic had been co-opted. You could walk into a shopping mall to buy your tie-dyed Bob Marley t-shirt, smiley face black light poster, and Che Guevara shot glass. The physical aspects of the revolution leaked into popular culture, decorating, and clothing spheres, and the need for headshops was no longer so immediate.
When headshops first began sprouting up, it was most common to find them in the hippest districts of the major U.S. cities. California experienced a pronounced headshop boom in the iconic birthplace of psychedelia, Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. Further down the coast, LA’s west side featured a fair amount of headshops, particularly closer to the beach. On the East Coast, New York City used St. Mark’s Place as its headshop haven while the Midwest even had its fair share in Chicago’s Old Town. The birth of the headshop arguably began with the legendary Psychedelic Shop on Haight Street, which opened its door on January 3, 1966. New York City saw what was likely its first headshop a few months later when the candidly named Head Shop took residence on E 9th Street. Headshops never completely went away but as stoner culture was co-opted by corporations for novelty T-shirts, the average headshop found itself forcibly streamlined into a standard smoke shop; a store that traded strictly in drug paraphernalia such as water pipes. However, with marijuana now existing in an almost-but-not-quite-legal gray zone, headshops are returning to popularity. Many have even evolved beyond their brick-and-mortar predecessors with the advent of the cheap online head shop.
In the age of Amazon, it’s no surprise that brick-and-mortar headshops are finding themselves competing against online wholesale head shop giants. They tend to sell a vast range of dispensary supplies wholesale in addition to pipes, bongs, rolling papers, and all that jazz. We recently published a story about how the online headshop fits so snugly into the modern marketplace due to the convenience of ordering from home that has become a standard shopping experience. There’s still something special about walking into a brick-and-mortar headshop, talking with the employees and seeing what’s new. But when you know what you want, hitting up an online headshop can be a more convenient (and often more affordable) experience. Today’s headshops may bear little resemblance to those that supported the late ‘60s counterculture, but at their heart, they’re offering similar services. The glass pipes never went away and the Bob Marley t-shirts and incense are back in the inventory. Do the modern headshops still offer the mind-expanding aids and countercultural poignancy intrinsically offered by the term “headshop” itself? That depends on the head.