For Smoke Enthusiasts, a Glass-Pipe Paradise

Among the hip coffee shops and authentic taquerías of Tucson, another group of specialized retail store is thriving here: smoke shops. In a two-mile radius near the University of Arizona campus, there are at least seven of them.

Most are easy to find. Space Smoke Shop is not, tucked away on an obscure street in the downtown area. The owner, Shane Dalton, does not seem to mind. In his eyes, he has no competition. “I’m bold in saying that,” he acknowledged.

There is some truth to his words. Space Smoke Shop sells smoking pipes that are made right upstairs, but it also offers snacks, live music and fine art — pieces that might fetch between $1,200 and $6,000.

This evolution did not happen by design. “It was a very organic thing,” Mr. Dalton, 43, said. “Chaos is my main player.”

He opened the shop five years ago, right around the time Arizona legalized medical marijuana. His location, on East Pennington Street, is far from the bustling, trendy Fourth Avenue scene, where there are two smoke shops across the street from each other.

When customers enter the store, the first thing they may notice is the array of stickers and posters plastered on the glass — so many that it is difficult to know exactly what lies inside.

On one side of the shop is an open area, where bands like the Greenland-born Maxies and the ska-punk band Kill Lincoln have performed. That area is usually off-limits to the public, unless a show is going on or customers are interested in purchasing the paintings by the local artist Michael Pasquet. Most days, customers visit the opposite end of the shop, where they can find glass pipes and other paraphernalia.

Space Smoke Shop offers a large selection of pieces, as well as fine art for sale and live music.
Space Smoke Shop offers a large selection of pieces, as well as fine art for sale and live music.SAIYNA BASHIR/NYT INSTITUTE

And snacks. The store sells all types of snacks: local beef jerky, kettle corn, name-brand chips, drinks and the usual junk-food staples — perhaps a natural accompaniment to the wide array of smoking products that line the wall behind the counter, where Mr. Dalton can usually be found.

To the left of the register is the store’s version of glass-pipe paradise, featuring one-of-a-kind water pipes.

Mr. Dalton sells only American-made pipes. Other smoke shops might import theirs from China, but Mr. Dalton said he did not support low Chinese wages and harsh labor conditions.

Not everything is so obviously high-minded. When bands perform, Mr. Dalton projects “ancient, terribly offensive cartoons” behind them. A recent example was an animated cow painting its face black and puckering its lips, a common racist depiction of black people in the mid-19th century.

Mr. Dalton said he hoped the cartoons would start conversations and show “where humanity has been.”

“I’m just trying to create an environment in here that’s different.”

— Shane Dalton

He added that customers have told him that his store provides a “completely Disney-type experience.”

On a recent afternoon, one of the store’s regulars stopped by. Mr. Dalton asked how he was doing.

“Alive,” the older man said.

“Stay that way,” Mr. Dalton replied.

With a laugh and a thanks, the customer grabbed his drink and tobacco, the usual combo at Space Smoke Shop. The man said he wanted to sell some DVDs at the shop, but Mr. Dalton was unpersuaded. “That’s highly illegal,” he said, laughing.

That’s typical of Mr. Dalton: He prefers a lighter touch — anything to avoid discouraging his customers.

“I try to make it a home here instead of a store,” he said.