Keeping Businesses Weird
Surf Hookah: Don't tell me you never wanted a head shop
Owning a head shop has to be high on a million people's Bucket Lists.
Aside from the goes-without-saying perk of being your own boss, you get to thumb your nose at the mainstream and sell beautiful pieces of craftsmanship that people use to smoke, among other things, weed. All while wearing flip-flops to work, talking to stoners all day and--bonus--annoying the Nancy Reagan set.
But that was never how Gary Sanchez looked at it, really.
The idea of dealing hookahs and water pipes at the Surfing Hookah in Austin, a town that is certainly a niche for such wares, wasn’t a statement or a lifelong dream. It was an escape from a seemingly hopeless and decidedly unsatisfying situation.
But no matter what path lead him there, different as it may have been from the mindless meanderings of a weed-soaked day dream, Sanchez turned forced retirement into a permanent vacation.
(It’s not hard in a shop with a video game lounge where you can bring beer and puff on a raspberry-tobacco flavored hookah while playing Call of Duty: Black Ops on a leather couch with a flat screen.)
His new life consists of lounging in sandals and Hawaiian shirts under a palapa-type structure inside his store. His career is ordering rolling papers for the gamer students and aging hippies, and hanging out with artists who make glass pipes that look like Chihuahuas.
His competitors are a handful of independently owned smoke shops, some big-name chains that have been in Austin since the 1970s and the pipe dealers who proliferate Austin street corners--mainly during music festivals. And apparently, there's room for everybody. In a town that embraces the counterculture as it if were a birthright, the Surfing Hookah - just one and a half years old - is riding that wave in a market that clearly is far from saturated.
Two years ago, at age 60, Sanchez was laid off, sick of looking for work and despairing of ever being hired again. He was re-evaluating his life and his options in Houston, where he was born and raised, with a father who had washed his hands at the end of every work day. Just like he did.
He was fresh off 13 years as a machinist, which he had done in between bouts of kicking himself for selling the custom chrome business he had owned for a dozen years before that.
“I didn’t work it right,” he said of the chrome shop, which specialized in Harley Davidsons. He never took vacation, he panicked about erosion and antique bikes at 2 a.m. and he didn’t take advantage of the fact that he was his own boss.
“Coming to Austin was like deja vu, as soon as I got here, I felt like I was back in the 70s. More long hair, more hippie-type people. In Houston, you don’t see that. You see rednecks and gang-bangers.”
Sanchez finally burned himself out, got sick of the headaches and sold the business.
“Then I had to work again and wished I hadn’t,” he says now, with a laugh.
The perk of being your own boss is that as long as the business survives, nobody can lay you off. Sanchez got canned after his company had him train a young new guy with a lower salary. He job-hunted for months. No luck.
“At my age,” he told himself, “nobody’s going to hire me.”
That’s when the call from his nephew, Robert Zoch, came. His fiancee’s dad has a smoke shop in Denton.
Let’s open one in Austin. You in?
Well, Sanchez said. Why not?
Well, because once you own a head shop, even though the pieces are sold for tobacco use only, you’re publicly associating yourself with a lifestyle considered to be on the fringe by the people who are currently in charge of things. And those people can really screw with you if you get under their skin too much.
Sanchez shrugged. He had no philosophical issue. He was single. He was jobless. It sounded like fun. And Hell... “It beat what I was doing,” he said.
So Sanchez cashed out his 401K and invested. He hired his son and two great-nephews. Like a Dunder Mifflin up against Office Depot, they push customer service as their number one draw: They repair pieces for free, they guarantee their merchandise, they let people in after closing.
Sanchez the machinist, the lithographer, the Navy vet and custom chrome builder, hit the books and learned the legal intricacies surrounding the ownership and operation of a smoke shop.
Sanchez left the artistic products--what cops might call "paraphernalia" if they find one in your glove compartment--to the younger dudes.
Aside from perusing the locally made pipes in the front, the gamers like come and play the X-box or the Wii or the PS in the back lounge. They sit around on the couches in clumps, men outnumbering the women 10 to 1, pushing aside long bangs and hitting the Blue Baja tobacco. The lounge also attracts older couples who bring wine and watch a movie on one of the flat screens.
It’s a much more fun way to enjoy hookahs, Sanchez and his family decided, than going to an authentic place and waiting for the occasional belly dancer to wander by.
Earlier this year, Sanchez and his nephew threw a Super Bowl party with homemade chili dogs. The gamers showed up in en masse. Not a one of them knew it was Super Bowl Sunday. They just thought the Surfing Hookah was throwin a party, dude.
Who doesn’t want a life that makes you giggle constantly?
“I don’t want to go back,” Sanchez says. “I haven’t been back since I left.”
He could have been talking about Houston, his old home. Just being in Austin felt like a homecoming to Sanchez.
“Coming to Austin was like deja vu,” he said. “As soon as I got here, I felt like I was back in the 70s. More long hair, more hippie-type people. In Houston, you don’t see that. You see rednecks and gang-bangers.”
Or he could have been talking about that old life, in which the work was dirty and the vacations only typical.
His new career is “easy. Laid back. There’s no work involved.”
Tucked into a strip mall, the shop has a huge blue wave jutting out into the parking lot, with a big hookah surfing on it. It’s a remarkable sign for such an unassuming little place.
Inside on a recent Saturday, Sanchez is happy and hanging out in front of a TV. The palapa dangles from the ceiling over the ocean blue floor. In the back, Keith Zoch dutifully lights a hookah for a group of 20-somethings taking a break from the bright sun and heat. The group is drinking a glass of wine they brought and chilling on the couch in the cool, dark lounge.
Zoch, 21, gets deep real quick when asked what it’s like to run the lounge for his great uncle--the boss who looks like he just stepped out of a Jimmy Buffet song.
“I sell comfort,” Keith says, swiping long, curly hair from his eyes. “If I have to look at it from a business perspective.”
Oh, Keith. Why start now?