What is A Headshop

Different decades have seen a variety of subcultures come and go. In the 1960s and 1970s, antiestablishment society members were into free love, metaphysics and exploration of altered states of consciousness. They were part of a liberal youth movement that sought out love and human camaraderie. Headshops were an important aspect of this movement. What is a headshop? It used to represent a place for members of the counterculture community to commune. Today, it could be argued that the headshop is part of mainstream culture.

What is a Headshop?

Although the term “headshop” is still used today, it originated more than 50 years ago. For those who are wondering, “What is a headshop, and what does that mean?” there are many theories about where the word came from.

Most places typically referred to boutiques as “head shops.” While California referred to these shops as “psych shops” they eventually came around to the term towards the end of the sixties. The term “head” was a suffix tacked on to the end of a word (any noun) as a way of describing an enthusiast for a particular subject, item, etc. For example, take the moniker of fans of the Grateful Dead - now known as Dead Heads. Dead Heads were into hippie culture, tie-dye, and herbal medicine.

There is some debate on whether or not Jefferson Airplane had anything to do with the term sticking due to the lyric in “White Rabbit” — “Feed Your Head”. Basically, anything that may alter your “head” or your consciousness.

What is a Headshop? A Brief History

In the 1960s, counterculture youth infiltrated larger cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Independently run candle and music stores began to cater to that crowd. There is some debate on what was the first ever US headshop. Many say that the storefront known as the Psychedelic Shop, which opened in 1966 in the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco was the first US Head shop. Others report a small boutique in Denton, Texas as operating in 1964 called “The Shrunken Head”. Some signs on the store front, indicate the storefront was established in 1966.

The idea was to provide hippies with the materials they sought in order to have a magical time. What is a headshop? At the time, it was also a safe space in which people with philosophies that differed from those of the mainstream could commune.

The owners of the first headshops weren’t so concerned with turning a profit. Instead, they were focused on promoting the ideals of the subculture in their cities. Many headshops sold underground newspapers. Counterculture artists found it difficult to make a name for themselves in mainstream newspapers. Therefore, their comics and drawings were sold in headshops.

By the 1970s, headshops were located all over the U.S. More than 30,000 shop owners arranged trade groups and organized meetings. Jay Hanson opened the Free Spirit in Lansing, Michigan, in 1970 to provide more vibrant offerings than those that were found in traditional department stores. Customers were encouraged to stop in and hang out even if they weren’t planning on purchasing anything.

What is a Headshop? The Evolution

By the late 1970s, these types of shops were making money. Many young Americans had a deep distrust for American politics following the Vietnam War and were ready to rebel. High Times magazine was a success since its foundation in 1974. Bob Marley, Cher and Truman Capote all graced the cover in the 1970s. This helped to bring attention to the underground economy of paraphernalia. Shop owners were collecting good money and toning down the focus on counterculture politics.

The answer to the question, “What is a headshop?” changed in the 1980s. By the time the War on Drugs was in full force in the 1980s, headshops were under great scrutiny by concerned members of the population and authority figures. Organizations run by parents and legislators restricted the activities of many of these shops. Laws banning the sales of drug paraphernalia limited the items that these shops could sell. Thousands of shops went out of business in the 1980s. Owners didn’t want to face criminal charges or the financial burden of hiring lawyers. Shops that were left standing went back to promoting a culture of activism.

Oat Willies, a headshop in Austin, was affected by the 1980s paraphernalia laws. The store was opened in the 1960s by some artists and writers who contributed to a local humor magazine. Oat Willies quickly became a staple in the community. When new legislation in the 1980s tried to shut it down, it stood strong. The owners needed to change the words that they used to describe some of the inventory, and they were forced to stop selling certain items. However, they stood their ground, and the owners credit their shop for helping to reestablish a smoke shop culture in the area.

What is a Headshop? Terminology and Definitions

What is a headshop known for? Although it is illegal to sell drugs in a headshop in many states as of 2016, the establishments traditionally sell paraphernalia associated with drug or tobacco use. Headshops also sell incense, crystals and psychedelic art and jewelry.

Paraphernalia is equipment that is used to conduct a particular activity. In this case, paraphernalia refers to papers that are used to roll dried herbs into joints or cigarettes, pipes and bongs. Water pipes extract smoke from a lit herb through water. The water filters out toxins and cools down the smoke so that it’s not as irritating to the airways.

Incense is an organic material that releases aromatic smoke when it is burned. It is made of plant matter. Essential oils may be added to intensify the fragrance. Incense has been used in religious ceremonies and ancient medicine. It can be used to encourage relaxation and altered states of mind, especially when it is used during meditation.

Many crystals and stones are thought to have healing powers. They have been used to tune into one’s intuition, aura or energy. Crystals and stones can be used in energetic cleansing rituals or meditation practice. They may also be worn as adornment.

Psychedelic art pieces are visual displays that are motivated by hallucinations or mind-altering experiences. Psychedelic art can be used to manifest an intoxicating encounter and help someone transcend the energy and restrictions of the physical body.

What is a Headshop Popularity

By 2015, 27 states had decriminalized the possession of a certain recreational herb. Recreational use is legal in four states. However, possession in Texas can still land you in jail for 180 days, and it is still taboo to mention the substance in a headshop.

However, the legalization of medical and recreational herb use has altered the marketplace. More smoke shops are opening across the country, and sales for existing headshops are rising. According to a 2013 Headquest Magazine report, the headshop industry brings in about $10 billion a year in the U.S. and provides more than $3 billion in tax revenue for local, state and federal governments.

Although headshops also sell posters, T-shirts and jewelry, their best sellers are pipes, grinders and scales. Vaporizers are also becoming increasingly popular. Many shops are now relying on local artists to supply them with handmade pipes and other items.

The increased acceptance of herbal medicine led to the headshop boom after 2013. In many areas, these types of shops no longer represent a counterculture. They are foundations in the community that provide jobs and support local artisans. Many cater to the baby boomers who are relying on herbal medicine to treat ailments like arthritis and cancer.

Consumers are more likely to invest in high-end equipment now that there’s a lower chance that it will be confiscated. Although dispensaries carry some paraphernalia, it’s often low in quality and mass produced. Most dispensaries are not interested in competing with headshops.

The Future of Headshops

It looks like the headshop isn’t going anywhere. What is a head shop commonly called these days? A headshop may be more frequently referred to as a smoke shop. Many are still packed with tie-dye shirts and portraits of Bob Marley. Others look more like jewelry boutiques and are filled with delicate blown glassware. As the market transforms from underground to mainstream, the head shop will remain in existence.

Modern head shops have evolved from storefronts in communities to online retail shops, like Cannsy. Unlike the atmosphere in the 19060s, head shops are no longer havens for alternative politics and philosophies. This may be due to the fact that those viewpoints are becoming more conventional. The shops still serve a similar purpose, however. Can consumers find items that will contribute to a mind-altering experience at a head shop? The answer may lie in the mind of the beholder.


  1. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17541328.2015.1058480
  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/22/books/high-times-a-40-year-history-of-the-magazine.html?_r=0
  3. http://sunflowerpipes.com/head-shop-history/
  4.  http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/11/12/legal-smoke-shops-flourish-pot-use-grows/3511117/
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