What Is a Head Shop? (2024)

This is a fair question — you might know that a head shop is a place where you can buy glass pipes, bongs, and other accessories you’d typically use to smoke flower, but what is a head shop, exactly? Contrary to popular belief, head shops do not sell actual herb (like dispensaries do). They tend to only sell the paraphernalia and products that are associated with the culture surrounding flower.

During the early years of head shops, product selection was relatively scarce. After all, smoking herb was either barely legal or not legal at all depending on the state you lived in. These establishments primarily offered a small assortment of pipes — typically hand pipes and perhaps a few different types of bongs. While these options may seem modest in comparison to the smoking accessories that are available in head shops today, the fact that head shops even existed in the first place was a pretty big deal at the time.

In this blog post, we’ll be talking a little about the history of head shops, as well as answering any questions you may have about modern head shops and what they sell. Don’t go anywhere, because we’re about to get into the meat and potatoes of it!

The History of Head Shops

Back in the day, head shops were the coolest spots you could find in major cities across the United States. They were especially booming in California, where the psychedelic movement was born, with Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco being a prime location for these types of shops. The West Coast, including the beach areas of Los Angeles, also had its fair share of head shops. On the other side of the country, New York City claimed St. Mark's Place has its own head shop haven, and even parts of the Midwest, like Chicago's Old Town, had their own unique scene.

One of the first head shops to open its doors was the Psychedelic Shop on Haight Street in San Francisco, CA. The Psychedelic Shop opened its doors in 1966, and quite frankly shaped the very concept of what a head shop could be. Shortly after that, New York City welcomed its own contender for “best head shop,” appropriately named “Head Shop.” That was pretty much the beginning of the end — since then, head shops have been cropping up all over the country, and the history of how they’ve changed over the years is fascinating.

While head shops never completely vanished, they faced quite a few changes along the way. The corporatization of stoner culture played a huge role in transforming the average head shop into a standard smoke shop. These shops eventually shifted their focus towards selling drug paraphernalia like water pipes and bongs, which means they, unfortunately, lost some of the unique countercultural elements that once defined them. That said, head shops are making a comeback — especially with the evolving legal status of smoking flower.

Head shops are becoming popular again — not only in physical stores but also online. The rise of affordable online head shops has made it a whole lot easier to browse and buy smoking accessories from your couch. No more having to sober up enough to drive to the store — you can get as high as you want and buy a new bong from the comfort of your home! Of course, for those who prefer to explore a physical store, in-person head shops are still very much an option. We’d recommend perusing an online head shop, like SMOKEA®, though, if you’re just getting into the world of smoking paraphernalia!

Why Do They Call it a Head Shop?

The term "head shop" has made a comeback for sure, but its exact origins can be a bit puzzling. People have come up with different explanations for why it’s called a head shop, and some explanations make more sense than others. Some think it's related to the nickname "dead heads” (i.e. fans of the Grateful Dead). However, the most likely explanation dates back to 1913 when the combination of the word "head" with the name of a drug started being used to describe someone who enjoyed partaking in it.

Head shops started getting popular in the 1960s, as the American counterculture began to embrace free-spiritedness and the act of enhancing one’s experiences through the use of substances. Think about the song "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane, which ends with the line "feed your head" repeated several times. Basically, head shops wanted to help people "feed their heads" by providing them with the necessary accessories to do so — and, boy, have these smoking accessories evolved!

Whether you want an old-fashioned dry pipe, bong, or anything in-between, you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for at an online head shop like SMOKEA®!

What Do Modern Head Shops Sell?

Nowadays, head shops sell more than just smoking accessories. It’s still different from a dispensary, which sells herb and herb-infused products that you can (now) purchase legally depending on what state you live in.

At a head shop, you can find things like water pipes, hookahs, vape pens, and rolling papers. They usually also stock things like grinders, roach clips, scales, and lighters. Sometimes, you can even get cool flower-themed socks and walking sticks from head shops! Some head shops take a more simple approach, and some go all out — it just depends on where you shop.

Are Head Shops Legal?

What Is a Head Shop? (1)

Legally speaking, head shops in the United States can operate as long as they don't sell actual flower or products containing THC. That said, specific regulations and restrictions tend to vary depending on the state. This is due to the federal classification of herb as a Schedule 1 drug (which means it’s still considered illegal at the national level). For this reason, before opening a head shop, people have to be super well-informed about the applicable rules and regulations.

For example, in certain states, head shops aren’t allowed to sell bongs under that name, so some stores use alternative terms like "water pipe." A lot of head shops claim that their products are intended for legal tobacco use (despite the presence of herb-themed posters, socks, wallets, and what-not). Some stores even have policies that strictly forbid mentioning the "M" word and require anyone, including customers, who does so to leave immediately.

With the gradual improvement in the legal status of herb throughout the country, though, head shop owners and workers can now feel somewhat relieved. Several states, including California, Colorado, and Washington, have legalized both medical and recreational herb. Decriminalization efforts are gaining a lot of momentum at the federal level right now, too. Although complete legalization is still a work in progress, the future looks promising, both for in-person and online head shops.

What Is the Difference Between a Head Shop & Dispensary?

If you’re wondering what the difference is between a head shop and a dispensary, you’re not the only one. Some head shop customers are surprised by the fact that head shops don’t sell “the goods,” so to speak, and this can cause a lot of confusion. Let’s talk a little about the differences between head shops and dispensaries, just so you can avoid running into this type of situation in the future!

First of all, head shops have been around for a much longer time than dispensaries have. Unlike dispensaries, they tend to operate under the guise of being a place to buy tobacco-smoking accessories and cool, counter-culture items. Again, head shops do not sell herb — that’s what dispensaries are for! Some dispensaries sell smoking accessories like water pipes and vape pens as well, but if you’re truly looking for the perfect pipe or bong, head shops are where it’s at.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the legal definition of a head shop?

A head shop is legally defined as a retail store that specializes in selling items and accessories that are associated with the use and lifestyle surrounding herb. Depending on the state, some head shops may label their items in ways that create a sort of legal “loophole” (i.e. calling bongs “water pipes” or advertising their products for tobacco use only). Again, head shops do not sell herb, so they’re perfectly legal in comparison to dispensaries operating in states where smoking flower isn’t legalized.

Where did the head shop come from?

As mentioned previously, the origin of head shops can be traced back to the Psychedelic Shop (located on Haight Street in San Francisco). This shop, which opened in 1966, is generally considered to be the first head shop in the United States. It was founded by Ron Thelin, a U.S. Army veteran, and his brother Jay. Another notable establishment, simply called "Head Shop," was opened by Jeff Glick on East Ninth Street in New York City just a few months later.

How do online head shops work?

Regardless of the legal status of herb in your state, online head shops can operate as legal platforms. This is because the items you can buy from head shops (i.e. water pipes, rolling papers, vape pens, etc.) have a lot of different potential uses. By purchasing these items, you’re not breaking the law — so don’t stress! Online head shops are also super convenient, which is why they’ve gotten so popular in recent years.

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What Is a Head Shop? (2024)


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