Chad Wade, owner of Up-N-Smoke Syndicate, got into the smoke shop business in 2007 after his home-rehabbing business fell victim to the downturn in the housing market. Wade and his brother originally started selling smoking products at a flea market in Shepherdsville. Now, Wade, 41, has five stores and employs 18 people.
Wade is about to open another location, at Third and Central near Papa John’s Stadium. Demographics, such as median income, median age, and other statistics available on the Internet, dictate where a new store is located. Wade buys the smoking products in bulk, so it only takes him about two weeks after signing a lease to open a new store.
What separates Up-N-Smoke from smoke shops of the past is customer service. Gone are the days when stores kept pipes in a back room behind a beaded curtain. Up-N-Smoke has water pipes, vaporizers, glass pipes and smoking accessories laid out in cases like jewelry in a department store.
Wade’s first store, the Shepherdsville location, is still the largest, at 2,600 square feet, but the Barret Avenue store is Up-N-Smoke’s most profitable location. The store offers T-shirts, posters, e-cigarettes and novelty gifts. Wade says it attracts a lot of University of Louisville students.
“Those people are spending the money,” he boasts. “They are coming from out of state, out of county, out of the country. They are coming in with Mom’s credit card. They are of age, and they can afford the eight- or nine-hundred-dollar water pipe. They have very disposable income.”
Wade emphasizes that he sells products for tobacco use only, and if people use it for a different purpose, that is not his fault. “As adults, people are smart,” he says. “They are going to figure out a way to do what they are going to do.”
Owning a smoke shop requires an aptitude for semantics. There are certain words that should never be spoken, and all of them are drug-related. Most smoke shops post signs warning customers that their products are for tobacco use only. In addition, the glass pipes are referred to as “pieces” to emphasize their stature as handcrafted artisan glass. While cigarette papers may be offered, and a customer can buy a water pipe, you’ll certainly never hear the B-word.
“We have a paraphernalia speech law here in Kentucky,” Wade explains. “If you use the ‘bong’ word, that is only supposed to be used for drugs. It’s a freedom-of-speech, watch-what-you-say situation. I don’t understand it, myself. But if there is any kind of reference to drugs, the transaction has to stop or we, as a business, can be cited for it.”
Violation of federal or state drug paraphernalia laws can lead to fines, seizure of property and even jail time. Despite this, the number of smoke shops and convenience stores selling smoking products has exploded in the last decade. The Yellow Pages website lists 121 smoke shops in Greater Louisville, and 40 of them are specifically identified by the out-of-fashion term “head shop.”
On Bardstown Road from Taylorsville Road to Grinstead Drive alone, there is Smoked House, Electric Ladyland, Hubbly Bubbly, Natural Mystic, Smoker’s Paradise, Zara Smokeshop, and one of Wade’s five Up-N-Smoke stores. Add to that number the hookah bars, which in some cases also sell smoking products, and several more smoke shops farther down the road.