The genesis of San Diego's head shops

Peace, love, and the bottom line

Spencer Wold:  “If hash oil comes in, you get hash pipes.”
  • Spencer Wold: “If hash oil comes in, you get hash pipes.”
  • Image by David Covey

Vic McCully’s head shop Synthetic Trips has sat in its ramshackle contentment at University and Euclid for eleven years, squeezed between a bar (currently called the Dynamite Den) and a closet-size diner. It is the oldest head shop in town, and the most traditionally accoutered; paraphernalia is the primary product. It self-consciously maintains the cluttered, unkempt look familiar to such places a decade ago, with the falling-down posters and the cracked display-case glass and the cement floor and the hint of incense all contributing to a vague sense of illicitness.

Vic McCully: “I probably have the messiest store in town.”

Vic McCully: “I probably have the messiest store in town.”

Ask Vic where the ashtray is and he’ll tell you you’re standing in it. “I probably have the messiest store in town,” judges Vic, “and that’s the way I want it. Makes my customers feel at home.” McCully knows who his customers are. “Heads!” he retorts incredulously when asked. “Potheads. (But coke is really overtaking the grass.) The dope culture, the counterculture, people into getting high.”

"The big seller in those days was rolling papers."

"The big seller in those days was rolling papers."

Dennis Hopper sprawls on his back in the roadside weeds, his head a gooey blur; nearby lies his crumpled motorcycle. Peter Fonda has leapt from his machine and hurtles toward his blown-away side-kick, soon to meet his own similar demise. It is a moment from the movie Easy Rider that has been captured and transferred to a black and white poster tacked to the ceiling of Vic McCully’s head shop. It is a troubling image, oozing with significance, struggling awkwardly to say something about a past, a generation, a dream.

"Coke is really overtaking the grass."

"Coke is really overtaking the grass."

Whatever that particular old poster, one of hundreds attached to the ceiling and walls of Vic McCully’s head shop, may be trying to say about the Sixties and Seventies, you won’t hear it paraphrased by Vic McCully. Like other head shop owners in town, McCully doesn’t hold much truck with philosophizing and symbolizing and labeling. But in other ways McCully and his colleagues speak volumes about that past which spawned their industry, the drug paraphernalia industry, and about that generation which is still their clientele.

The shopkeeper reached over, grabbed the carburetor, and smashed it on the floor.

The shopkeeper reached over, grabbed the carburetor, and smashed it on the floor.

McCully, who is now thirty-eight, has been getting high since he was fifteen. It was natural, though accidental, that he gravitated to the paraphernalia business. In 1967 McCully was a mechanic in his father’s automobile brake shop downtown. In his off-hours he built himself a machine that eventually became the basis for his “electro-psychedelic art.” A vacuum cleaner motor spun a base on which McCulIy attached a sheet of poster paper. As the paper rotated, McCully poured paint on it. “I was doing it because it was a trip. Get loaded, look at all the colors,” recalls McCully. After he’d stockpiled well over a hundred posters, he got tired of his friends urging him to try to sell them to some of these new-fangled head shops which had cropped up in town — now-defunct places like the Love Shop at Thirty-fifth and University, the Guru in Mission Beach, and the Plebian in Pacific Beach. One night — drunk, stoned — Vic took about fifty posters out and sold them all to head shops. Thus his wholesale poster business was born.

Sitting at the bar in the Dynamite Den, which he now manages in return for free beer, McCully illustrates his past by frequent trips next door to retrieve this or that poster. He breaks out the one that was his biggest seller — the super sun. It consists mainly of a big, bright fluorescent spot smack in the middle of the poster. The spot is intensely colorful, especially made for viewing under a black light. McCully started with an almost totally red spot on a blue background, and he sold or traded 2000 to 3000 of them a month for about a year at seventy-five cents apiece to distributors, a dollar and a quarter wholesale. McCully soon had trained a painter who could produce eighty posters in five minutes and forty-five and a half seconds, but the production rate fell to only three a minute after the large orders, such as 10,000 at a time, started coming in. This was because each poster had to be exactly like the one before it, a difficult and time-consuming requirement. The first 5000 posters McCully produced were each unique, but once the world beat a path to his door, uniformity was necessary. Eventually McCully had nine or ten people working for him in the building which now houses Synthetic Trips. McCully, who was raised in the neighborhood he worked in, found himself making good money.

One day Vic was loaded on acid and he was in his shop fooling around with the wheel and different colors, and when he stopped the spinning wheel he noticed the room started moving in the opposite direction. “I’d had enough acid to know that didn't happen,” says Vic, so he went out and got some friends to come see the room move. When they saw it, too. McCully exclaimed, “Now ain’t that a synthetic trip!” By this he meant, ironically, a “real, not a drug-induced trip.” Now that he had a name, all he needed was a shop.

By 1968 the poster business had become old hat to Vic and his employees. They complained to him that there wasn’t much to do when they weren’t working, so, according to McCully, they said, “Shit, Vic, why don’t we get a store so we can get some women in here?” McCully laughs now at the motivation for opening a head shop, but it was as good a reason as any. “The whole head shop idea was a joke,” he insists. “Nobody was making any money. All the ones I was selling to were going broke.” But who cared? So Vic went to Los Angeles and traded some of his posters for other posters and he came back and opened a shop with thirteen posters on the wall and a few black lights. That was all. Paraphernalia was unavailable and almost unheard of then. It was the age when pot-heads made their own smoking accessories out of toilet-paper rolls or Army gas masks. For the first year things were tough; Synthetic Trips struggled.

What turned the business around was the welling up of a whole generation’s thirst for a separate identity, and to Vic’s mind that came first in the form of the Peace-Love poster. “When the Peace-Love poster came out,’’ declares McCully with a wistful grin and a snap of the fingers, “that changed the whole country. It started selling black lights like crazy.’’ He fetches one of the Peace-Love posters and unfurls it. At one time, it would have been called “trippy.’’ It consists of a round peace symbol with two reaching hands inside of it, and the words “Peace” and “Love” in ornate colors and styles above and below it. It is shocking pink and yellow-green on a black background and it sold for two dollars; still does. “You’d order twenty-five and they’d be gone in two days,” says Vic. It got so he'd trade a thousand of his super-sun posters for a thousand Peace-Love posters.

But other posters had by then caught hold, too — the one with President Johnson riding a motorcycle and the words Vietnam Vacation imprinted on it, several different ones depicting nude women, a cartoon caricature of a policeman that is actually a pig in uniform. The latter McCully started printing because he “got pissed off at a cop.” But his big break came when a guy named Dick Inslow drove down from Hollywood with a truck full of paraphernalia. This mostly consisted of pipes made from lamp parts, roach clips, rolling papers — crude stuff manufactured in Hollywood’s garages. Other people soon started trickling into the shop to sell pipes or clips they’d made. Innovation began immediately. A man named Dick Johnson came in one day with a glass carburetor, a simple device which enabled the smoker of a joint to take a more concentrated dosage of smoke into his lungs. Johnson showed McCully how it worked, gave him a big spiel, and at the end of it said, “And what’s more, it’s completely unbreakable.” McCully, unbelieving, repeated “You gotta be kidding” several times to the salesman’s confident nopes, whereupon the shopkeeper reached over, grabbed the carburetor, and smashed it on the floor, to the salesman's considerable chagrin. Johnson meant that the device was Pyrex. “I bought the shit out of ’em,” says McCully of the first carburetors. “Sold the shit out of ’em, too.”

Business started booming in 1969 and 1970. When McCully’s super-sun poster started to falter, he got his brother to paint on an overlay of a tree, and he had himself a brand-new poster. (He eventually produced eight variations of the supersun.) Glass paraphernalia was the rage for a while, and then the water pipe hit McCully’s head shop and things got even better. He made so much money during the 1970 Christmas season that he went out and bought himself a Jaguar.

Now, it’s a bit hazy, but the posters on Vic’s walls bring something to mind. Wasn’t there some kind of talk about revolution back then, and about what the unabashed pursuit of money did to people? Didn't capitalism get a bad name in the late Sixties, branded evil by the very people who bought McCully his Jaguar? Ask Vic about this, and about how his business was born from the seeds of dissent, dissent in large measure against the profit motive, and he’ll give you a blank stare.

Then he’ll bristle and say, “If some jerk works for a living and then calls me a capitalist, he’s an ass. We’re all capitalists.” Nudge him and he’ll say, “I earn my money, and I don’t have to work. I got my two houses and my child support and that's all I need. I could still be downtown slingin' grease.” Now he’s at the corner most days, slingin’ grease at Jerry's Auto Radio, because he enjoys it. He has a woman in charge of the shop, so he really doesn’t have much to do during the day, and he’d rather not sit around in the Dynamite Den. So he works on cars. He’s contented.

“I feel this is the best country in the world. If I want to start a head shop, this country’s gonna back me up. You couldn’t do that in any other country. Sell stuff to help you smoke something illegal? No way.” McCully’s patriotic exuberance may be a trifle misplaced. Nationally, more than 600 laws have been enacted in an effort to stem the sale of paraphernalia, especially to minors. In some cities, such as Oxnard, this h<^ reached the stage of actually outlawing the existence of head shops. Though a statewide anti-paraphernalia law was defeated by the California legislature last spring, several city ordinances have been passed. It started in October, 1978, with the city of Lakewood adopting an ordinance that required a separate room for the display of paraphernalia, a room that would exclude minors unless accompanied by an adult. The industry claims the laws are unconstitutional and unjustly treat paraphernalia like pornography. Legislators do tend to refer to head shops as “red light” businesses. Since last October nearly every month has seen the adoption of similar ordinances in Southern California, including the cities of Upland, Norwalk, Lawndale, Glendale, Garden Grove, Downey, La Mirada, Azusa, Oroville, Bellflower, Westminster, Huntington Beach, Los Altos, El Cajon, and La Mesa. In response to this onslaught, the National Paraphernalia Association, the industry’s trade organization, formed the Western National Paraphernalia Association. The WNPA, mostly through trade publications like Paraphernalia Magazine and Paraphernalia Digest, but also through direct mail to the shops, disseminates guidelines for head shops to follow. The organization supplies legal help for head shop owners who are litigating the anti-paraphernalia laws. It has spent about $50,000 in Los Angeles County fighting for injunctive relief this year. Preliminary injunctions have been obtained for some cities.

The tack the WNPA, and indeed the whole industry, seems to be taking is one that does not fit with the ambience and candor of stores like Vic McCully’s. The association suggests that stores not sell to minors (Vic will argue with you about what a minor is), and suggests that in ads and in conversations between clerks and customers it should never be indicated that the product for sale is intended for use with any illegal substance. The WNPA, an apparently strong force in a heretofore rudderless, nascent industry, likes to portray paraphernalia as just another facet of the gift industry.

Rick Cabados is the kind of head shop owner who finds the WNPA most appealing. He owns The Trip and runs three stores — one each in Clairemont, Chula Vista, and El Cajon. When El Cajon passed its anti-paraphernalia ordinance last May, Cabados was following the WNPA guidelines by not selling to minors (he says). For a while he considered filing suit, but he eventually decided to comply, since the WNPA was so confident that the law would be overturned. The organization was right. Last week Superior Court Judge Edward Butler ruled the ordinance unconstitutional. It had required that a separate room be set up for the display of paraphernalia, and had decreed that minors couldn't enter this room unless they were with an adult. The law stipulated that a sign be posted saying that paraphernalia was for sale. Cabados says that at an El Cajon city council meeting last spring, one councilman told him “We don’t care if the law’s unconstitutional; if our constituency is against it [paraphernalia], we won’t have it.” The ordinance was enacted in reaction to parents’ complaints about a head shop that was near an El Cajon elementary school.

Unlike McCully’s shop, which has become something of a relic in its own time, Cabados’sare indicative of the direction most shops are heading in. His Clairemont shop is located in Genesee Plaza, a brick, wood, and glass shopping center at Balboa and Genesee. A FedMart store occupies most of the center. The shop, Trip West, is situated between a sporting goods store and a gym, just down from a Hallmark Cards shop. In the front of the store is a hot tub display, clothing, and jewelry. In the back are posters, candles, paraphernalia, and a ticket agency that Cabados owns half of. Paraphernalia is only one section of the store, but the bright plastic bongs and glass carburetors and the coke mirrors and electric pipes and the “Beat the Border” smuggling games on display seem to attract the most people, predominantly the very young. It is a business with nothing to hide.

Cabados, who is twenty-nine years old, owned five shops until last spring. He closed down the ones near state college and in Pacific Beach after “spreading myself too thin.” He says his profit margin was too small at those stores. Cabados is the only established head shop owner in town who speaks in terms of “profit margin” and “output per square foot of store space” and “shelf life” of an item. He quotes the Wall Street Journal; he’s starting a spa company; he's half-owner of a company that manufactures sophisticated acrylic bongs (an advanced water pipe) that don’t spill the water out when tipped over. These are distributed nationally. He has a real estate license and is involved in “buying and selling units.” He employs about twenty people. He’s “what you’d call married — not legally; I’m there by choice.”

Cabados took over the shops just last year, though he’s worked for them since 1971. An eye doctor named Fulbright started The Trip downtown at the corner of Broadway and Columbia that year. Cabados needed a part-time job and went to work for Fulbright. At that time Cabados owned a towing business, but he realized right away that his future lay in head shops, so he sold it and became manager of The Trip. In 1972 he became half-owner of one store and in 1978 he bought the whole chain.

Cabados, who only needs Calculus 51 to graduate with a degree in social economics, attended San Diego State University between 1968 and 1974. He was what you’d call in those days “radical.” He was a member of the Student Mobilization Committee. Most of his clique became teachers. But he sees no irony in his metamorphosis from an organizer of rallies and demonstrations against the war and other oppressions into a thriving, calculating businessman who won’t confirm or deny whether he uses drugs. When asked about this oddity, his tightly controlled face, outlined by shoulder-length hair, showed not a sign of being troubled by the obvious presence of the profit motive as the driving force in his life. “I’ve got certain goals,” he shrugs. “If it takes money to see them through, then I’ll make money.” He won’t reveal these goals. Later he adds. “Our country is not per se capitalistic. We do have socialistic tendencies. I make a good living, but I pay a lot of taxes — unemployment, Social Security. . . . We contribute to socialistic programs. There’s no reason we can’t help people. ”

Of course, Cabados’ main occupation is helping people get stoned, and if from a Sixties perspective this endeavor has become just another way for the establishment to make a buck, then the joke is on all those young, naive, middle-class pot-heads who told one another marijuana was a symbol of a new order, a way to say you definitely were not a member of the establishment, and a way to set yourself apart from a rooster-pit world. But the Sixties perspective is mostly dead, replaced by the perspective illustrated by Sid Crown, managing editor of Paraphernalia Magazine and the spokesman for the WNPA. “We market these things because the generation demanded it.”

Crown says. “We did not create the demand. The toilet-paper roll steamboat evolved into a bong because there was a demand. All the kids at Woodstock said, ‘Give us a better bong.’

“I agree money is the root of all evil, but in this day and age nobody believes you’re a success when you win a Pulitzer Prize. They think you’re a success when you pull up in the parking lot in a Maserati.”

Today the ads in Sid Crown’s magazine and in High Times, the hip leisure publication, which this month is celebrating its fifth anniversary, looks uncannily as if they stepped right out of a Sixties satirical spoof on the marketing menace. “Are you snorting more and enjoying it less?” asks an ad in Paraphernalia Magazine for the latest dope rage — a chemical processing kit which transforms cocaine into its pure form (eliminating the cut) so that it can be smoked in a special pipe (sold by the same company). "Shit to Gold” declares another ad in High Times for an “ismerization converter,” which purports to 'turn ‘shit’ grade pot into paralytic weed. Not only does KIK increase ...marijuana potency, ” the copy continues, “but it also improves taste, smell, and color of all grass with no weight loss. Something to think about if you happen to be in the business.” There are ads for complete marijuana growing systems, for scales accurate down to a hundredth of a gram, and for white chemical substances used to dilute cocaine.

Dope paraphernalia has become just another multimillion dollar consumer goods industry, founded partly on the ethic expounded by Belinda (not her real name), 17 (her real age), found shopping in Rick Cabados’ Clairemont store one afternoon. While she was looking at all the colorful bongs and pipes and carburetors, Belinda was asked if she and her friends were interested in using such gadgetry when all it really takes to smoke a joint is a pack of thirty-cent papers. “Into gadgetry?” she restated. “Oh yeah, definitely. Anytime I have extra money I come down here and see what’s new, see what else I can try. The act [of smoking] is what gets you going on it. Like with some of these bongs, you see the smoke spinning and turning and it gives you an extra head rush.”

But it isn’t just teenagers who buy the gadgetry. According to head shop employees, it’s the older people, twenty-five to thirty-five, who buy most of the new goods, since young people, on the whole, are short on cash. And as Belinda points out, it's hard to hide a big, bulky bong from your parents. Clerks at The Black, in Ocean Beach, which is the second oldest business on its block, tell a story about parents rushing into the store, ranting and raving, because their fifteen-year-old son purchased a marijuana-leaf T-shirt there. He was allowed to exchange it.

Actually, the marijuana-leaf T-shirt was one of The Black’s original items when Jack (who won’t allow his last name to be used) set up shop in Oceanside in 1967. Its staple products were leather jackets from Mexico, velvet paintings, and T-shirts. To the shirts Jack would transfer messages like "Member of the Tijuana Pussy Posse,” and “Think Snow.” Jack and his store were run out of town after only four months of operation because the townspeople didn't like him selling those velvet paintings from Tijuana with naked women on them. He moved the store up to Long Beach and sold the same things, but it still wasn’t what you’d call a head shop yet, though Jack’s destiny was obviously in that industry. “Paraphernalia just wasn’t being supplied,” he says of the early days. So why did he get into paraphernalia at all? “If Coca-Cola was looked down on, we’d have handled Coca-Cola, as long as it was legal.”

Jack started using space in a building on Newport in Ocean Beach, near The Black’s present location, as a transfer point for the goods he was buying in Mexico. Late in 1967 a company called Platt Manufacturing was opened in Los Angeles by two ex-carnies who’d been running a business making frames for the “spin art” concessions at carnivals. Their main product was posters, but within a year they were distributing such items as peace medals to Jack and other shopkeepers. “Platt would pay two or three cents apiece for ’em, sell ’em to us for a quarter, and we’d turn around and sell ’em for a dollar to the customer. Everybody was making money,” explains Jack. But the big seller in those days was rolling papers. During the halcyon years. Jack was buying papers by the case — 10,000 individual packs, half a million papers. Today The Black sells about ten percent of the amount of papers it sold at one time, mostly because so many other kinds of stores carry them.

The Black opened up shop in O.B. because people kept coming into the warehouse and asking for paraphernalia. It started operating in 1969, and Jack claims the reason the store is practically an O.B. institution is that he’s continued to let the customer tell him what to sell. It’s a constantly changing business. Items sell like crazy for a while and then die out. Even posters, which are once again strong sellers, fizzled out around 1975.

Beginning about 1968, one new poster after another came on the market and knocked ’em dead. First it was the Peace-Love poster, and then nudity and politics, and finally the biggest seller of all — the Easy Rider posters. All proprietors agree the number one-seller was the one with Dennis Hopper flipping the finger as he cruised on his motorcycle.

But after the economic slump of 1974. the poster market cooled considerably, forcing the closure of many shops that relied on it. And now the poster is back, but it’s changed. Whereas in the late Sixties it was a medium for the expression of an opinion, a point of view, today it seems to be more an expression of aesthetics. The Black and other head shops sell a lot of nature scenics, sports moments, pin-up girls, and surrealism. And black lights are passe.

Because of this fluctuating component of the business. The Black expanded into other goods besides paraphernalia. It carries clothing now, and jewelry, as well as books and musical instruments. Jack owns only the paraphernalia and jewelry sections of the store.

Jack emphasizes that he never really went into business with the intent of opening a head shop. He doesn’t regularly ingest drugs. He smokes dope once or twice a year, says it puts him to sleep. He’s done cocaine “ten or twelve times. It doesn’t do anything for me. It’s got a lot of things against it. Personally, I think it’s addictive.” (Friends of Jack’s say that the last time he tried cocaine was at his house in Mission Hills. He and some friends snorted a bunch of it and decided to crawl down through the nearby canyon to the freeway, and then crawl back up again. Jack got such a bad case of poison oak that when he came to work the next day his eyes were almost swollen shut.) Jack says that over the last year he’s heard from many people who’ve quit smoking marijuana. “It seems like a point is reached where you’ve just smoked enough,” he says. “It’s bad for you.”

In August, 1969, about the same time The Black was opening, Spencer Wold was passing through San Diego on his way to Hawaii to go to college. Since he’d run what were considered to be head shops in several towns in Ohio, including Cleveland, he was carrying a couple showcases of “gift items” with him. He laid eyes on Mission Beach and liked it so well he decided to stay. After pumping gas as a civilian at MCRD and working at the Palace bar on Pacific Highway, Wold opened up the Get-It-On Shoppe in 1970.

Wold, 35, was labeled a hippie in those days, though he never called himself that. Today he’s a vegetarian, hasn’t eaten dairy products for about two years, and is thinking of adding a second floor to his shop so he can expand the health products (vitamins, protein powder) he carries. He, too, has diversified into other areas besides paraphernalia, even opened up a gift shop down the street (Images). But paraphernalia is the primary product in the head shop.

Though Wold doesn’t admit to seeing it that way, one whole display case in his shop seems to cater to dealers. Mortars and pestles, little spatulas, scales, small vials, and even an electronic debugging device are displayed in it. Wold sells mannitol, a cutting agent for cocaine. But still he remains just another small businessman, concerned with his own market and in business primarily “to put food on the table.”

“You try to stay on top of what seems to be happening,” says Wold. “If hash oil comes in, you get hash pipes.” In the past Wold had an excellent opportunity to stay in tune with the dope scene — in ’72, ’73, and ’74 he was the San Diego County coordinator for NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) which unsuccessfully tried to pass Proposition 19. The vanity plates on his rickety old VW read “YES CMI” (California Marijuana Initiative). He says he doesn’t smoke as much marijuana as he used to, and he admits to experimenting with cocaine, “to determine the validity of what I’ve read about it. Also, to have items available to people, I have to be assured that what the item could be used for wouldn’t be harmful. ” He says he doesn’t use cocaine regularly.

Though he’s worked hard for the legalization of marijuana, Wold realizes that it would mean a big blow to his paraphernalia sales if it ever came about. This is one of the reasons Jack from The Black almost prefers to see marijuana remain illegal. The rationale is that once it’s legal, places like Sears, Penney’s, and May Company, and even smaller five-and-dime stores would put in paraphernalia displays, further eroding the business that has already been depleted by the availability of those items in 7-EIevens and record stores. Part of the attraction for a head shop is that it sells supplies for a black market, and somehow the business has managed to maintain an air of intrigue, which has been used as one of its most effective marketing tools. A chain head shop, Tower Posters, has already cropped up, and has established stores throughout the state (in San Diego at Sixty-fourth and El Cajon and on Fletcher Parkway in El Cajon). Nearly every ad in the trade journals keys explicitly on higher profits. The distribution and manufacturing companies have stabilized into about twelve large firms. Legalization of pot would be a boon for the industry, but a special shop, a head shop like Vic McCully’s dealing mostly in paraphernalia, would no longer be required. As for the others — Cabados, Jack, and Wold — it’s been years since they catered strictly to the underground market, so they will survive in some form. And when the next revolution comes, they’ll be in on the ground floor.

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