University City

Head shops blossom near campus

In another sign that University City is becoming more of a college town, four "head shops" have popped up like magic mushrooms close to the UNC Charlotte campus since the beginning of the fall 2011 semester.

These colorful stores are stocked with everything UNCC students might desire to elevate their mood, if not their grade-point averages.

Two large new stores have joined two smaller shops that have long been part of the campus scene. The prime motivation behind all this psychedelic proliferation may have nothing to do with '60s-style tuning in and dropping out. In keeping with Charlotte's business orientation, the dynamic appears to be pure economics, with a bit of very un-mellow marketing thrown in. It's classic competition, wearing a tie-dyed necktie.

These aren't Granny's head shops, though all carry full arsenals of bongs, roach clips and posters bearing the images and wisdom of Jerry Garcia, John Lennon and Bob Marley. Each store has a distinct look and feel.

The One Stop Smoke Shop is the oldest. This small place has been in business 11 years, sandwiched between a Domino's Pizza and an ABC store, just east of campus on N.C. 49. It features tobacco, with a walk-in humidor filled with fine cigars. Joe Marano said One Stop is a "smoke shop," as opposed to a "culture shop."

"Some head shops even carry sex toys in the back, but we don't," said Paige Pierson, working behind the counter. "The people we have coming in are interesting enough already."

Beside Jackson's Java Coffeehouse is one of the new head shops, Infinity's End. This big, brightly lit store held its grand opening just last weekend. A local family business that opened its first store in south Charlotte in the late 1960s, Infinity's End has several locations in the Charlotte area. This is its first in University City.

Beneath prayer flags fluttering from the ceiling, co-owner Becky Pietras showed off one of the store's main attractions, a wall filled with flying discs for disc golf. For more than a decade, disc golf products have been a hot item in the store, Pietras said, excitedly adding that the International Disc Golf Championships are coming to Charlotte in July 2012.

The store also has glass cases showing off collectibles, including the latest "creepy cute" figurines.

It has the friendly, laid-back feel of a beach-town souvenir and boogie board shop. Next door, at Jackson's Java, the barista said she's happy with the new neighbors.

"It reminds me of the place in Myrtle Beach where I bought my first Grateful Dead T-shirt," she recalls wistfully.

Across campus, next to the Flying Saucer on U.S. 29, is Above and Beyond. An established business, it is quirky and edgy, with "hippie chip" cookies, mixing chocolate chips with valerian root, on the counter.

A couple of clean-cut young folks in shorts and sneakers asked a bearded and tattooed Ryan Lentz, curly hair leaking from under his black knit cap, for help selecting a hookah. They hung on every word as Lentz held up a graceful helix of purple glass and told them, "This coil cools the smoke better than anything else, man...." When they raised an eyebrow at the price, Lentz smiled and said, "Hey, you get what you pay for."

Lentz said he's pleased that Above and Beyond has just been purchased by High Life, the latest head shop to open in University City. The new chain has added seven stores in the Carolinas in just a year and a half. Three weeks ago, it opened its newest store in a strip mall on N.C. 49, a half-mile east of campus.

High Life has a strong counter-culture look and feel, but Kristen Malone and co-workers were quick to let me know that their store has the best prices. Like Infinity's End, High Life is a family enterprise based in Charlotte, though with a strong California connection.

The store carries a full line of skateboards and accessories, alternative-style clothing and Rastafarian knit hats, and a jewelry section that includes pieces designed to be inserted in various body piercings.

Meanwhile, all the peace and love emblazoned on those T-shirts hasn't stopped some old-fashioned capitalist competition. Pierson, of One Stop, complained that High Life has sent employees with signs to set up outside her store.

"They fight dirty!" she said. "There is plenty of business for all of us."

Perhaps it's yet another sign of our contentious times: These days, even the hippies are quarreling.