Village Grannies is updating the smoke shop for the 21st century, with one of the city's classiest, friendliest places to buy pipes and bowls.
Zviah Eldar (left) and Vered Behr inside their smoke shop, Village Grannies. All photos by the author
The door to Village Grannies is already open when I walk in. One of the shop's eponymous owners, 56-year-old Vered Behr, stands behind the counter, her blonde and brown hair swept up into a half-mohawk, with black-framed glasses on her face and a swipe of red lipstick on her mouth. Tattoos peek out from her sleeves. "Please, come in!" she beams.
That kind of welcoming entrance is unlike most smoke shops in New York City, generally teeny slivers of real estate with harsh gashes of fluorescent light lighting smoking contraptions arranged in glass cases like a Saw puzzle. At most, you might find some candy by the counter, behind which a scowling man peers at you suspiciously.
Village Grannies is the polar opposite. Opened by Behr and fellow grannie Zviah Eldar, 60, in November 2016, the space has colorful glass pipes dangling from elegantly wrapped rope; a sleek glass and wood counter featuring hand-blown pipes in the shapes of horses and clowns and frogs climbing on trees; a wall painted gold wall that reads "Life is Beautiful"; and a couch in the back decorated with hand-sewn pillows bearing cannabis leaves. Everything about the space is warm and inviting.
"That was one of our first ideas, that it would be comfortable enough to come in, appreciate the art of it," Eldar says. "Because it needs to have an artistic feel to it and a lifestyle. We felt we had an idea that was not done before and that intrigued me."
Though marijuana has shed much of the stigma it developed in the D.A.R.E.-driven 80s, its use is not yet shame free—with people like Attorney General Jeff Sessions publicly declaring that "good people don't smoke marijuana" as early as last year, how could it be? But it may be soon. The Pew Research Center reports that as of last year, 71 percent of those aged 18-35 are highly likely to support legalization, as are 57 and 56 percent of their Gen X and Baby Boomer forebears, respectively. Today, "[it's] like having a drink at the bar across the street," Behr says. "It's something people do."
Behr and Eldar themselves embody the idea that marijuana use is becoming as acceptable for older Americans today as alcohol. They say their customers reflect that idea, too: with people in their 50s and 60s stopping by with their adult children and urging them to smoke instead of drink because it's better for your health.
The two women had spent their careers prior to Village Grannies working in creative fields—Behr as a jewelry designer and Eldar as a creative director for film. They met through mutual friends in New York about six years ago, and decided to go into business together a few years later, after realizing there wasn't a place in New York they felt welcome getting their own smoking supplies. "I tried so many stores but I always felt uncomfortable, so it was in and out," Eldar says. The women sought to create a space where people would want to spend time, maybe even forge a community.
When Village Grannies opened three weeks after the election last year, that sense of community was something they felt people craved. "I think [people have] created, the last few years with social media, a very isolated life," Behr says. "And in time of confusion, isolation is the most dangerous place to be." As Behr put it, in an age when social media brings a sense of constant digital connection yet physical disconnection, it becomes unusual to interact in a meaningful way with a stranger in a public place. A public place that sells smoking paraphernalia, no less.
Though Village Grannies has been open for less than a year, their focus on community seems to be working. During my time there, regular customers stop by to say hello and see what new products are on the shelves, a man in a suit waves as he walks past, and a group of girls from out of town snap pictures on their phones of the dangling pipes. Much of the business comes from word of mouth and foot traffic, because smoking-related products are considered inappropriate and illegal for advertisement on social media (though they're allowed to have accounts on the platforms, which they do). A month after opening, they were featured in New York Magazine's Best of New York 2017, as "Best Upscale Head Shop."
The idea that such a thing, a "Best Upscale Head Shop," can exist now is a positive shift in the way not just New Yorkers but Americans writ large are viewing cannabis culture. With Whoopi Goldberg developing her own line of cannabis products for menstrual relief, and Disjointed, a new pot-friendly sitcom starring Kathy Bates debuting on Netflix on August 25, marijuana is more mainstream than ever before. In fact, ArcView Market Research, dedicated to developing cannabis industry-related business, reports that medical and recreational cannabis usage together generated 6.7 billion dollars in 2016. They project that by 2021 the combined usage will generate nearly four times that amount.
"It's not like the '60s anymore, when cannabis was for hippies to have a reason just to live on daddy's account and to preach love and drugs and rock n' roll and just be stoned all the time," Behr says. "I think this image is moving towards the reality of what the options of cannabis [are]." Those options include the increasing use of marijuana as legitimate medicine or casual social intoxicant alike. It's the reality that marijuana consumers are no longer young people in drug rugs—they're successful adults, parents and grandparents. And with any hope, that reality will grow to include more stores like Village Grannies, looking to be community spaces rather than secretive, get-in-and-get-out holes in the wall. The marijuana industry is one full of possibility for those who see outside those stereotypes. "You see the future," Eldar says, "where 10 years ago you couldn't."