A Landmark San Fernando Valley Head Shop Stays Relevant By Embracing Pipes as Art
A pricey pipe (or work of art) at Captain Ed's
Photo by Nanette Gonzales Castro
Crammed in among the faded façades that line Reseda Boulevard, Captain Ed's Shoppe stands out as a relic of an idealized, counterculture past. On the shop's wall, an anthropomorphic sun winks at passersby, its message "Get up, stand up" surrounding it. Next to the sun, a grinning crescent moon and the quaint yet relevant message, "Make love, not war."
For a certain kind of person, there is no mistaking what you'll find when you open the shop's heavy door. The smell of incense and sounds of classic rock and reggae ring familiar. Look up to the ceiling and you'll see a collage of bands and pin-up models — posters "stapled by hippie hands," says owner Darin Silverman, better known to the locals as D.
The folks behind the counter are young, hip and chatty. You might wonder if you can be up front with them. Can you tell them what you need and why, or are these pipes still "for tobacco use only?"
For decades, the Reseda shop and its Van Nuys mate were at the center of the San Fernando Valley's head-shop scene. If you spent your formative years in the Valley, you may recall wandering into one of those stores with friends, looking for, um, black-light posters.
You may remember how your eyes bulged when you peered into the display cases and caught sight of the array of smoking accessories. You might have caught yourself exclaiming to a friend, "Dude, look at the size of that bahh — I mean, um, glass pipe!"
A lot has changed since the 20th century. Marijuana was fully illegal and buying the accessories to go along with it was a semi-covert action.
Now, if you have a prescription, you can smoke it. If you don't have a prescription, well, there's a chance that will be legit in two years.
In the old days, asking for a "bong" (from the Thai buang) could get you kicked out of Captain Ed's. In 2014, the issue for head shops is how to stay relevant in an era when you can pick up a cheap pipe at a gas station.
For D, that means diving into the world of "heady glass."
That's glass art that also functions as a pipe, and it's way cooler than the carburetor "vase" your friend made in high school ceramics class. Late last year, D opened Heady Gallery next door to the Reseda shop, featuring a show of works by Darby Holm, one of the leading artists in the scene.
"It's like Van Gogh coming to do your first show," he says. More exhibitions followed. Over the summer, BMFT, a Colorado-based artist who has racked up the fans on Instagram, brought in an immense collection of whimsical glass pieces.
Heady glass is more art than pipe, and it's priced accordingly. On the low end, pieces are still a few hundred dollars. Some go for well over $10,000. And they do sell. D says that "super ballers" sometimes snatch up the highest-priced works before they hit the market.
The biggest sellers, though, are the ones priced under a grand. "It's not low-priced," D says, "but it's what people can genuinely afford."
D is the reluctant head-shop owner making his mark in relatively new terrain. "I never wanted to go into the business," he says after a short burst of laughter. "The business kind of abducted me."
For D, head shops are a family thing.
According to Los Angeles lore, D's dad, Bob Silverman, was out on Venice Boulevard with Edwin Marsh Adair III, who became Captain Ed. They sought rolling papers but found none — in surf-central, artist-central Venice in the 1960s, mind you. Ed had heard about a shop in Van Nuys, so the two friends trekked over the hill — and were impressed by what they found. Bob asked the shop owner what it would cost to open a similar enterprise, and the owner said his place was for sale. The two friends bought the joint and opened Head and Highs in Van Nuys in 1967. Two years later, they launched the Reseda store.
Ed worked behind the counter five days a week. Bob came in on the weekends. A few of their "crazy hippie friends" lent a hand here and there. Later, they changed the name from Head and Highs to Captain Ed's Shoppe.
As a child, D helped tidy up his dad's shop by gathering the tiny pipe screens that fell into the cracks in the floor. Retrieving a dime-sized screen would earn him 10 cents; a quarter-sized one would garner 25. He and his brother took their earnings to Thrifty Drug Store for its surprisingly stellar scooped ice cream.
The hippies who hung out with Bob and Ed were a part of D's life, too, like Jack Herer, the "Emperor of Hemp." D recalls the late Herer fondly. "Captain Ed and Jack Herer made a pact that they would die trying to legalize pot — and they did."
D entered the business in the 1990s. At the end of that decade, his father died. Ed had died a few years prior. After running the shops with his brother, he became sole owner in 2004.
In his youth, there was a certain amount of cool cred that went all this. "Everybody wants to party with you," D says. Now he's the guy with the cool job, and at parties he listens to confessions as the "drug priest."
Silverman says, "They'll start unloading all these hilarious secrets on you, because they immediately feel that they can trust you and you're not going to judge them, and their weirdness is welcome."
The heady life isn't without its challenges. D's father warned him that legal weed would hurt business, and he was right. As medical-marijuana outposts proliferated, so did stores selling the accoutrements.
"Shops became less about your friend behind the counter and more about what was the absolute lowest price," he says. D met that challenge by intentionally keeping Captain Ed's the same, and the two stores remained destinations for Valley stoners.
"The feeling of history is so strong inside the stores," he says. "That's what we've tried to preserve more than anything."
Still, competition became fierce and Captain Ed's had to survive. Eventually, the odds and ends he used to stock — such as keychains and jewelry — gave way to more smoking paraphernalia. New gear, including vape kits, appeared to satisfy customers who had moved far beyond the old roach clip.
And then there's the heady glass movement, which has blossomed since the advent of social media.
If California voters go the way of Colorado and Washington in 2016, there will be more changes for head shops. D envisions both negative and positive consequences of full legalization. He anticipates an eventual "Walmartization" of heady glass, with cheap knockoffs multiplying ("It's going to be kind of sad to see it happen," he says), as well as corporations taking over weed production.
"The people who fought for legalization would be disappointed," he says, about the future he anticipates. But at the same time, he imagines people sampling weed the way they taste wine. The "boutique marijuana purveyors," he says, will survive.
When it comes to accessories, that's the route Captain Ed's is choosing, too.
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