Apr 12, 2017 10:30PM, Published by Leland Rucker, Categories: Features
Photo by Danielle Webster
Talking with Bonnie Dahl, who has been operating the Fitter for 44 years, you feel that same history. The store remains vibrant in an age Dahl couldn’t have imagined back when she and her twin sister Betty began operating what was called the Pipefitter back then at 1352 College Avenue (it’s now located at 1303 Broadway).
Today’s consumers, she says, are long past the screens-and-pipe-cleaner stage. The more than 30,000 students at the University of Colorado across the street are among the most sophisticated cannabis shoppers in the country, she told me during a visit last month. “They’re coming in and asking for things, and I can’t keep up. Scientific glassworks, rigs, dabbing.”
Dahl admits she had no idea what she was getting herself into when her brother sold Betty and her the store. “We thought we were getting ripped off, but we were just 22 years old and didn’t know what we were doing. We immediately went on vacation. It survived in spite of us because we were just naïve.”
Back then, the Pipefitter was the only “head shop” in Boulder, a town where marijuana use wasn’t much of an issue even back then. But after a Reagan Administration crackdown on paraphernalia stores in the 1980s, the Pipefitter, like other similar stores, operated in a state of limbo, uncertain of the rules governing what they could or couldn’t sell. I can remember a time in the late 1980s when a sign on the wall advised, “Don’t say bong. It’s wrong, wrong, wrong.”
The respite ended on Jan. 29, 1991, when, as part of “Operation Pipe,” federal and state regulators raided the store under the pretext of “unlawful interstate trafficking of drug paraphernalia.” They took all their merchandise and froze their bank accounts, leaving them with no operating capital—on the day before Dahl and her husband were closing on their house.
“It was a big to-do, but we had a lot of support,” Dahl says now. Though the store stayed open selling incense, gifts and tapestries, it took 13 months to finally settle the case. “They kept the $55,000 they seized, and they gave us back some inventory,” Dahl, who avoided criminal prosecution, says. “Eventually, we just hopped back on the bandwagon. We slowly started selling paraphernalia and got back in the groove of it. But those were very lean times for three or four years, and a lot of people assumed we had shut down.”
Then in March 2003, as the store was making preparations to celebrate its 30th anniversary, Attorney General John Ashcroft targeted distributors of paraphernalia, this time under the name “Operation Pipe Dreams,” yet another misguided Drug War operation. “Instead of a celebration, we were getting rid of all our pipes, and we were not able to sell that stuff again for a year,” Dahl says.
About that time, Dahl’s daughter Erica began bringing in women’s clothing and accessories aimed at the college market, which really helped save the business and lead it in new directions. “At the point where we were ready to get the pipes back in, we opened Savvy on the Pearl Street Mall with our clothing lines.”
It was pretty much business as normal until legalization of recreational cannabis became a reality
in 2014. The Dahl sisters were somewhat apprehensive, reasoning that big box stores and corporations could move in and wipe them out.
She says the first year was a kind of a honeymoon before the competition began showing up. “More places began offering glass water pipes and vaporizers,” she says. “But the main one was the Internet, which became huge, and it still is. Because our industry was able to sell on the Internet, it’s just wide-open, and it’s still impacting us.”
Today the store offers a vast array of water pipes at prices that range from a couple of bucks for something small and simple to several thousand dollars for a custom-made glass pipe. There are no more signs about not using the word “bong.”
“That’s what’s so interesting about this industry,” Dahl says. “For almost forty years, nothing happened, and all of a sudden, it’s changing tremendously in a short period of time. People who were blowing glass in other industries found there’s more of a market in this than the art market.”
As business expenses increase, Dahl says they are more careful choosing merchandise to sell. And competing against the Internet with a brick-and-mortar store is tricky but doable, and she cites the store’s customer service, pricing, and selection as reasons people keep coming back. “Everything shifts so fast in our industry because of technology, and there are new products coming out all the time,” she says. “I still think we have a niche again, because I think what’s happened is that we’re still a college market, but we bring in people from all over.”