Feed your head: Night Flight takes a trip back to the early 70s head shop

By on January 21, 2016

Approximately fifty years ago, give or take a year or two, little boutique-type stores began to appear for the first time in some of the more progressive cities of our country, proliferating in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, on the west side of Los Angeles, on New York’s St. Mark’s Street in the East Village, and in Chicago’s Old Town, to name just a few locales.

They were typically called “head shops,” unless you were in California, where they were originally called “psych shops” until the end of the sixties before conforming to the norm; the word “head” in this context is kind of like a code for someone who dabbled with drugs (acidhead, for instance, being a person who gobbled up handfuls of LSD).

Tacking the suffix “-head” on to the end of practically any noun as a way of describing someone wholly focused on a particular subject or habit or food (or whatever) has probably been something humans have being doing since people were living in caves, but calling someone a “head” took an entirely new meaning during the late 60s and early 70s.

Hippies typically self-applied it — or they used the word “freaks” — when describing themselves, so it wasn’t necessarily a pejorative, or considered derogatory, quite the opposite, really. A head — a diminutive of “pothead” — simply meant somebody who smoked pot. A lot of pot.

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It’s entirely possible that the Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit” (with its rousing, anthemic closing refrain “feed your head”) may have been at least partly responsible for giving it additional totemic meaning to those who knew its true meaning. I’m sure there are college classes somewhere in America today where they’re still debating the etymology and meaning of what “head” meant and how it pertained to the Sixties, so we’ll leave it to them to decide who popularized the term and what it meant to the hippie sub-culture.

On the topic of head shops, there’s also been some disagreement over which store might have been the very first of its kind to open its doors to the public, not that “who came first” really matters in the grand scheme of things.

Some believe that The Psychedelic Shop, located at 1535 Haight Street in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, was the first, and it may certainly have been the first on the west coast, no question about that. U.S. Army veteran Ron Thelin and his younger brother Jay opened their doors on January 3, 1966.

According to an in-depth academic article written by Joshua Clark Davis of the University of Baltimore, called The Business of Getting High: Head shops, Countercultural Capitalism, and the Marijuana Legalization Movement:

“The neighborhood already had a few hip businesses, including the Blue Unicorn coffee house and two boutiques, House of Richard and Mnasidika. But the Thelins’ business was highly unusual even for the Haight. With their storefront, the Thelins hoped to ‘provide materials necessary for a good, enlightened, and safe trip.’ These materials included ‘books on eastern religion and metaphysics … along with Indian records, posters, madrases, incense, bead necklaces, small pipes, and other paraphernalia,’ as described by the poet Allen Cohen, an early customer and later employee of the store.”

(Davis’s forthcoming book, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: Small Businesses and Social Movements in the 1960s and 1970s, will be published by Columbia University Press in early 2017 — he has kindly granted Night Flight permission to excerpt from his article here).

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Four months later, in May ’66, Jeff Glick and his wife Betsy opened their own head shop — called, somewhat unimaginatively, “The Head Shop” — in the Lower East Side on NYC, located at 304 East Ninth Street, where they sold various glass work products (pipes, yes), as well as mandalas, comics and paintings by local artists.

Head shops typically were named so that you knew what to expect once you walked inside — Starseed Enterprise, Pandora’s Box, The Abyss, Zanie’s, Midnight Oasis, Hippie Gypsy, High on the Hill, Roach-O-Rama, Puff ‘n’ Stuff are examples, and you can watch local TV ads for some of these stores right here in this blog, most of them dating back to the 80s.

It turns out that the first head shop may not have been in either San Francisco, L.A., or New York City, and may have actually been located in the middle of the country — but not in Chicago — and may have begun selling “smoking accessories” as early as 1964.

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This particular head shop was located at 113 Fry Street, near the corner of Fry & Hickory, in Denton, Texas, a northern suburb of Dallas near the campus of UNT.

An excerpt on the Sunflower Glass Company website, detailing the history of head shops, says:

“The origins of the term ‘head shop’ are a bit hazy. The most widely accepted origin story comes out of Denton, Texas around 1964. The smoke shop in Denton has gone through many alterations and changes in ownership. Originally it was called ‘The Shrunken Head’. It’s location is near the University of North Texas, which is primarily a music school. When the students and other customers would as the shop’s owner about the name, he is quoted as responding, ‘when you come into my shop it will change your head.'”

The Shrunken Head was apparently re-christened by each successive new owner, and so those who passed through its front door have known it by a variety of interesting names. Early on, post-Shrunken Head, it was the Birmingham Balloon Company, and then at one point it, circa 1966, was called Texas’s Original Head Shop, proudly displaying a slogan promising that they sold “things for the head.” There’s even a sign over the door that says the store was “established 1966.”

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Sometime circa 1978, it was changed into a second-hand record store and called, simply, Fry St. Records & Things. Then, in 1994, the current owner began calling it The Zebra’s Head, and the store was given a new zebra-striped exterior paint job, as you see here, replicating the black and white bands on a zebra’s hide. More recently the owner (according to their own website) moved the store to Lewisville, in southeast Denton County, “taking over Big Mike’s House of Glass, and creating The Zebra’s Head House of Glass.” We don’t know who the current occupant of the zebra-striped storefront is selling now.

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No matter what this Denton, TX head shop was called, it no doubt served the same important function that all head shops did back then, to furthering the transitional spread of the hippie counter-culture in that part of the country, providing a kind of way station for its customers — a stopping point on an expansive journey of the mind, let’s say — helping them to broaden their horizons by offering access to an alternative underground culture right along with whatever drug paraphernalia you might need to get you to wherever you were trying to go.

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Yes, head shops have always sold glass-blown water pipes and wood pipes and bongs of various shapes and sizes and one-hitters and Zig-Zag rolling rolling papers (other brands too) and roach clips and,…hell,  just about anything you can think of that might be needed if getting high was your “thing.”

Davis again:

“Countercultural entrepreneurs knew that customers bought pipes, papers, posters, records, candles, black light bulbs, and even Buddhist and Hindu paraphernalia for getting high. But the experience itself of visiting a head shop was supposed to transport customers psychologically, to delight their senses, to take them on a proverbial trip. To set the mood for shoppers, stores often featured loud music, psychedelic lights, and heavy incense smoke. With names like Inner World, Middle Earth, Mind Garden, Sidereal Time, Third Eye, and The First Bardo (a reference to the Tibetan Book of the Dead), head shop owners devised their stores as places where customers could search for spiritual freedom and enlightenment. Some stores, such as the Electric Lotus in New York, featured meditation rooms like the Thelins’ Psychedelic Shop. Indeed, many head shop owners believed they offered a more humane, enlightened, and authentic alternative to the conformity, materialism, and alienation they attributed to ‘plastic’ American consumer culture.”

I was about eleven or twelve years old, I think, when I started making regular pilgrimages to my local head shop in Anaheim, California, which was called Swinger’s Psych Shop.

Unfortunately, this particular store, Swinger’s, has virtually no online presence today other than a few scattered mentions here and there, so I can’t share any photos of how it looked with you (and damn, I wish I could), and there aren’t a whole lotta great photos to be found of other head shops circa the early 70s either, but I’ll try to describe what it was like and hopefully you’ll get the idea what most head shops were like back then.

You can also get some sort of idea about vintage head shops, however, by checking out the photos I’ve found, or by watching some of the TV ads we’re sharing here, but I really don’t have any idea whether or not they’re dating back to the original period I’m talking about (probably not).

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I loved to read, you see, and head shops were a source and distribution point for all things underground, a world previously unknown to me that I knew I was missing out on because I was simply too young to be able to explore it. Early on, like all head shops around the country, the Shrunken Head also sold what might be described as alternative-lifestyle newspapers which often questioned authority, or talked about what was happening in the streets, or they promoted esoteric spiritual practices.

These “rags” couldn’t be found anywhere else in the local area — certainly not at typical newsstands back then — and they were like the fanzines of their day, underground publications that were usually distributed by the people who wrote them. Some of those publications would feature underground comics, which helped to popularize the work of underground artists like Robert Crumb, whose work ended up on posters that hung on the walls of a million teenage kids in the country.

I was also one of those kids who had Crumb’s “Keep on Truckin'” poster on his bedroom wall (it looked just like this one), and it was right up there next to the Farrah Fawcett-in-a-red-one-piece bathing suit poster (yes, I had one of those too, what can I say, I was a teenager with raging hormones in the early 70s).

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Swinger’s was a 2400 sq. ft. store located at 517 S. Brookhurst Street, about a mile south of the Santa Freeway, next door or in close proximity to an auto mechanic or body shop or a muffler shop (something like that) on the corner of Orange Ave.

I believe it actually occupied a couple of rented-out retail spaces next door to each other, in a dull and otherwise unremarkable mini-mall that still looks pretty dull and unremarkable today (a quick look at Google’s street view shows that the space is currently occupied by two businesses: Zena’s Hair Salon and Ocean Breeze Cleaners).

There was a record store a few doors down from Swinger’s called Palace Hi-Fi, but it wasn’t one of the better places to buy albums in the area, frankly, and it definitely had a kind of unfriendly vibe inside the store too. I always felt like the employees — I remember an older guy with a flat top haircut, wearing a short sleeve shirt and tie — seemed to always act like they were just tired of constantly being visited by the hippies who were streaming in and out of their store after stopping by Swinger’s and they didn’t seem to care for it one bit.

That’s how I remember it, anyway, but maybe I was a little paranoid, who knows? I was much more comfortable at the local Wherehouse record store (located in a larger shopping center down Brookhurst), even though a hippie dude who worked there once tried to molest my little girlfriend Liz when the two of us were shopping for 45s to play at my first boy-girl house party (I can still mentally picture this frizzed-out red-headed pervert standing behind us too close while we were flipping through the 45s, making us both a little nervous, and then he began leaning over her shoulder, and then one minute Liz and I were talking about our favorite David Bowie songs (one of the purchases I made that day was “Rebel Rebel”) and then next minute this fabulously furry freak had lifted his knee between her legs, rubbing it up against the lower back side of her dress.

I digress.

I’d ride my green Schwinn Stingray (with its sparkle green banana seat and the tall chopper-style sissybar) over to Swinger’s after school quite a lot back then because it was such a great place to just “hang out.”

The owner and pretty much all of the work staff — again, mostly long-haired hippie dudes and cute hippie chicks wearing midriff shirts or halter tops and ripped jeans — enhanced the great vibe by just making the customers feel welcome. I remember that you could just loiter in the store for what seemed like hours, peacefully, without being harassed by anyone, even if you weren’t actually buying anything.

I didn’t have a huge weekly allowance at the time and probably didn’t buy anything most of the time, but sometimes I did: red-and-white “love beads,” incense (I remember liking and buying sandalwood incense from them a lot), candles, various rock band t-shirts, all sorts of wall posters (never framed, always rolled up), “alternative” magazines and newspapers, and all kinds of small inexpensive things.

No drug paraphernalia, though, I was too young at the time and was still several years away from buying my first lid of Columbian, or Red Hair Sensimilla, which we called “red-haired sess,” or “mersh” — for “commercial” weed,  or whatever… anyway, all that came along later, in high school.

I think sometimes they even enjoyed seeing this young pre-teen head wannabe who obviously liked the head shop vibe, and so they mostly ignored me while they continued chatting at the front of the store and giggling while playing grab-ass with each other. They were probably always high.

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Heads shops, in general, and Swinger’s in particular, were like an incredible urban oasis or perhaps could be seen a relatively safe haven from the banal world just beyond their doors, and I’ve previously quoted sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, from his novel A Scanner Darkly, who perfectly described what my hometown of Anaheim was like this way:

“Life in Anaheim, California, was a commercial for itself, endlessly replayed. Nothing changed; it just spread out farther and farther in the form of neon ooze.”

I guess you could say that Swinger’s was a great escape from Anaheim’s spreading neon ooze, especially for a bored pre-teen such as myself. It was one of only a handful of local spots that I could ride my bike to and then escape in for an hour or so after school (I suppose other kids went off to their piano lessons or played some sort of organized sports or went home and started watching “Gilligan’s Island” re-runs on the TV; meanwhile, I rode my bike over to the local psych shop, always secretly wishing I was five to ten years older than I really was).

Swinger’s had the same funky vibe that a lot of record stores had back then too — like the local Licorice Pizza store across from Anaheim High School, and the aforementioned Wherehouse store, which were both chain stores but early on they still had a unique “mom and pop” store feel to them — with wall-to-wall shag carpeting that could use a good vacuuming, and a couple of worn-out, cigarette-holed couches where you could just hang out all afternoon, reading well-worn copies of music newspapers like Phonograph Record, or OZ or Evergreen Review (yes, a lot of the publications I remember looking at back then admittedly went right over my head), all while soaking up an always interesting hippiefied milieu that I knew didn’t really exist anywhere else, not as far as I knew.

Swinger’s Psych Shop — although I can’t remember if I called it anything other than Swinger’s — like most good head shops at the time, had its own unique sights and sounds and smells, the latter of which was a somewhat funky and acridly smoky blend of combined odors emanating from the ongoing burning of incense cones, cigarette smoke and maybe a little Thai stick too (or maybe Acapulco Gold or whatever else they were smoking in the back office, where the employees seemed to be constantly visiting. Maybe they weren’t smoking pot in the store, but I imagined they were, lighting up a roach and maybe there was some kind of feathered roach clip in the bathroom they all shared, sort of like a communal peace pipe they’d all toke from, one at a time).

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The dusky vibe inside the store (they never seemed to have overhead lights on, as I recall) and the smoky smells both enhanced the experience of shopping there, or hanging out, and I’m sure the store probably reeked to high heaven, but it smelled to me like what I imagined a musky Moroccan-style bazaar or boutique might smell like, where there might be incense burning non-stop. It began tickling the inside of my nose just as I walked through the door, sending a message to my brain that I was entering a very different place in the world, a very comfortable place where, in some kind of unspoken way, it meant I was expected to leave any personal issues and problems at the door so as not to send anyone else inside, especially those hippie employees, on some kind of bum trip.

That’s how I entered Swinger’s Psych Shop, like it was a church or some kind of holy place. That’s how it felt.

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The front door of Swinger’s, as I recall, had a little rope with bells on it, which you couldn’t always hear ringing off if they were blasting music in the store, which was pretty much what they did, non-stop.

That music — and remember, this was the early 70s — was usually was either very loud (I remember hearing Hendrix and Cream and Deep Purple and, especially, Black Sabbath) or it was very quiet; I remember hearing the delicately-plucked acoustic guitars and dulcet vocal tones of a lot of indistinguishable late 60s/early 70s folk artists, male and female voices, and today couldn’t tell you who they were because that wasn’t the music I connected with at the time (although I certainly connect to it now). I also remember hearing Indian music for the very first time inside that store.

Mostly, though, the music they played inside Swinger’s was loud rock. I can definitely remember hearing Sabbath’s Sweet Leaf blasting at an ear-splitting, mind-melding volume one time as I walked into the store — you know, the great Master Of Reality Side One album track, the one that kicks off with a tape loop of guitarist Tommy Iommi coughing while smoking a joint with bandmate Ozzy — and hearing it inside the store opened my eyes to vibrancy of early 70s stoner rock heaviosity, music that I soon realized I was actually missing out on because I was just a little kid back then and had mostly been listening to the local KEZY AM station on my tiny transistor radio, which I carried around with me everywhere.

Ah, the first time you hear Black Sabbath — it’s something you never forget, isn’t it?

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I remember they had a turntable behind the counter at Swinger’s, and they usually played complete sides of albums, most of the time, and I’d often stay long enough to hear several albums worth of tunes before I rode my bike back home.

In the back of the store, there was a little alcove where they displayed blacklight posters, behind a heavy curtain as I recall. I remember they had all kinds of wacky colorful posters on the walls of that little room, exploding with riotously bright purple and orange and yellow colors.

I never bought any blacklight posters, though — didn’t have a blacklight or strobe light — but what I remember most were some of the other posters they sold, like the one of Frank Zappa sitting naked on a toilet, and I remember another one with those two outlaw bikers from Easy Rider, and I remember seeing a lot R. Crumb posters. Excitedly looking at the posters was one of the first things I did when I’d enter the store, to see if they had any new ones since the last time I’d been there.

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By the end of the sixties, and I’m guessing here, the vibe I’ve been describing was already beginning to change (guessing because I didn’t start going to the store until I was eleven or twelve, in ’71/’72), and I may have been blissfully unaware of the intense scrutiny the owners of these head shops were facing behind the scenes, or behind closed doors.

I’m not sure I would have known about it at the time, but apparently from what I’ve learned since then, head shops weren’t always a peaceful oasis from the outside world, not for the store owners, as uniformed officers from the Anaheim police department dropped into Swinger’s on a semi-regular basis for no reason other than to hassle the employees and try to bust them for whatever charges they thought they could make stick.

I only saw this happen once: I was blissfully reading and hanging out when the music suddenly went down to a normal volume instead of the front glass window-shaking volume it was usually being played at, and I looked over and saw two of Anaheim’s (ahem) “finest” chatting with a long-haired dude who was stationed at the front counter, and I could tell that he was not diggin’ their conversation, no siree.

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Sometimes it was simply too much of a hassle to keep it going, and the hassles started to be a regular routine — the kind you’d see on some of those cringeworthy “Adam-12″ episodes where we were supposed to naively believe that the cops were actually empathetic good guys just doing their jobs — and a lot of stores ended up being sold or closed down because of the hassles, the increasing fines and occasional arrests of employees (kinda hard to run a store when the guy you’ve got running the register is being led away in handcuffs).

Sometimes these head shops stores would be sold and the new owners would open up in the same locale, and really attempt to make a go of it again, for awhile, but usually they too realized that they were expected to comply with annoying laws that were starting to be strictly enforced, not to mention the harping of concerned citizens who were constantly in some state of uproar over what influence these head shops were having in their precious, innocent children’s lives.

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Some of the owners did pretty well with their stores, financially-speaking, and they began migrating into other areas (like selling concert tickets), which would then become their main source of income.

Michael Lang, a wannabe musician and one of the original promoters of the Woodstock festival, is a good example of one entrepreneur who branched out into other areas.

During the early sixties, he’d gone to college, briefly, a few times, including at least a semester or two at the University of Tampa, Florida, and it was during that time that the native New Yorker first visited a bohemian enclave of Miami, called Coconut Grove, that he got the idea to open up his own head shop. And that’s just what he did, moving there with his girlfriend in the fall of 1966.

His first store, however, which was located in South Miami, ended up being shut down by the cops, but he later found a more suitable vacant space in the Grove, and this time he played by their rules, obtaining a business license and making sure he didn’t give the civic authorities anything to worry about.

He became so successful running this head shop that he soon moved into concert promotion. Inspired by the success of the Monterey Pop Festival in California, he promoted his own concert experience, the Miami Pop Festival, which was held at Gulfstream Racetrack in Hallandale, Florida in 1967, and headlined by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

But mostly, things were changing inside head shops, all over the country, were there were all kinds of new laws and ordinances that were specifically passed by angry communities and then strictly enforced by the cops in order to make sure that the smoking accessories weren’t being purchased by kids under the age of 18. Some cities made the head shops put these items in a completely separate room, and almost always the bongs and pipes and papers were locked up in glass cases. You might have to show an ID to prove how old you were too.

By the end of the decade, most head shops — even record stores, like the Licorice Pizza store where I worked in the late 70s, in Anaheim, which had three or four of these long, horizontal cases stuffed with bongs and pipes and other items — simply grew tired of the continuing hassles, and perhaps the lack of actual profit from carrying a wide variety of these items (many of which weren’t actually legal to own, I think), and they simply started removing their drug paraphernalia altogether.

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Some of the head shops that bravely tried to soldier on, though, fighting the good fight throughout the decade but losing each and every battle in what ultimately became the cultural and legislative War on Drugs of the 1980s. (You can read much more about this in Joshua Clark Davis’s paper, or buy his book when it comes out).

Some of the stores started de-emphasizing the radical counter-cultural aspects of their inventory, and eventually bowed under the pressure of local uptight citizen brigades (sometimes they weren’t much more than a lot of little old blue-haired church-going ladies with pinched faces) to clean up their act. Those who tried to stay alive into the 80s ultimately transitioned into becoming “smoke shops” instead of head/psych shops, and began to strictly enforce and police themselves with a fervency that drove most of the cool hippie employees away, not to mention quite a lot of their clientele.

Ultimately, like everything else in the world back then, most of these brick-and-mortar smoke shops were forced to join the mainstream of whatever passes for straight society, for the most part, forcibly streamlining what they were doing in order to appeal to tobacco smokers, let’s say, instead of pot smokers. The hand-crafted glassware started to show up at swap meets and pretty quickly glass blowers figured out that they could sell to their customers directly without having to deal with head shops that were by now buying fewer and fewer pipes and bongs on consignment.

Within a few short decades, these smoke shops were also dealing with advent of the online head shop, and more and more of them simply closed or moved their products over to an online website — or they went under, disappearing in a cloud of smoke, so to speak. Oh sure, head shops are still around today, but they’re really not anything like they used to be like, for the most part, and I for one really miss that.

If you came of age in the late 60s or early 70s, and you remember going to a head shop, then perhaps you miss them too. Feel free to share with us your own experiences in our comments section.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.