This Is What It Is Like To Work In A Headshop

what it is like to work in a headshop hemp cat iowa city

During the six years I spent going to work in a headshop I experienced the good & the bad, though mostly good, and learned a lot about myself & life in the process.

Weeks before my 21st birthday I was still living in my hometown, working at a used car lot as a mechanic apprentice, and was engaged to be married. I was on the fast track to an insulated life in a nowhere place where beer, football and bickering children would be the only rewards for endless days of wage slavery. I would definitely not be the person who I am today, a thinker and writer and activist. Fortunately for me, that engagement turned sour, and within a few months I had left a relationship, a job and my hometown.

All of the interesting people had moved to Iowa City, a ‘progressive’ college town and a far more diverse place. And after a short stint at a restaurant, I was lucky to get a job at a really cool head shop called the Third Coast. It was full of tapestries, sun skirts, bumper stickers, bad jewelry, Bob Marley posters and all of the other stuff that people who attend college and/or smoke weed are likely to buy; including the smokewear ‘intended for tobacco an legals herb use only,’ of course.

Suddenly, I was interacting with whole new types of people on a daily basis, the kind of people who don’t live or show their face in a place like my hometown of Newton, Iowa. I was exposed to new perspectives, outlooks and lifestyles by a constant cast of enlightening characters. I was also exposed to a lot of knowledge about how retail business is operated, as well as being connected to the internet reliably for the first time ever. I was awash in learning experiences while at the same time having very minor celebrity status for being one of the ‘head shop folk.’ People knew me all around town, and most of them treated me a bit better than average because of my job.

However, the thing that changed me the most was being awash in so much alternative literature. Often times head shops are the best bookstores, as they tend to focus on the most far out sort of books. I picked up the Principia Discordia and soon abandoned the remnants of Christianity I had clung to and became a Discordian. From there I moved on to reading materials by Robert Anton Wilson and had my mind blown in a million different directions. I soon took the task of doing the book orders so I could feed my voracious appetite for alternative thought and literature. I was so inspired that I began writing myself. Within a year I was ideologically nowhere near the same person I had been as an engaged mechanic. And I was much better for it.

In that time I became the manager of the headshop, which gave me even more experience and social clout. I did such a good job that the owners asked me to manage one of their other businesses, a toy store, for better money. Stupidly, I accepted. At the toy store, the owners were much different, and when I refused to be the middleman for their tyrannical policies, I was fired for ‘managerial differences’.

During my time at Third Coast, I also spent a lot of time at an even cooler head shop called The Hemp Cat. I would head over there after work and use their greater collection of metal parts to sculpt ridiculously complex pipes, while spending time with my friends who worked there. A week after being fired the owner of The Hemp Cat offered me a gig setting up and running a booth at a rave. Not only did I take the gig, I pretty much did most of the work, and it must have been appreciated because the next week I was asked to join The Hemp Cat team full-time.

The Hemp Cat was even more fun to work at, and was located in a sort of upstairs mini mall (The Hall Mall) surrounded by other alternative businesses. My social networks and knowledge expanded even more. I continued to evolve at a rapid rate. And then one Sunday morning I received a call from the owner telling me not to show up at the shop for my shift unless I wanted to spend the day with federal agents. I did not. The infamous ‘Operation Pipe Dreams’ made a target of the shop, and as I was now pretty much out of a job, I packed up a few bags and headed to Seattle.

After some time in the Emerald City, I moved to Portland, Oregon. But the job situation there was desperate, and so after a little more than a year, I headed back to Iowa City. When I returned, my friend had opened up his own head shop in the Hall Mall in Hemp Cat’s absence. So of course, I went to work for him. Here, I learned even more of the details of owning and running a business. This was soon to come in handy, with rumors of new raids by federal agents in the works, my friend decided to close shop.

After a few months of working in a kitchen again, I had enough. I called upon some of the connections I had made over the years, and on some of the favors. I did some other creative finagling with a landlord and investor. Starting with absolutely nothing, a week after I had the idea to own a head shop for myself, I opened my door for business. I had about $200 of donated stock. I lived off $1 gas station sandwiches and slept on couches and put every dollar I could into more stock. Within a few months I was running a full blown head shop I called Shasta Mountain Trading Company.

For the time I was there, I learned a lot about running a business, but even more about myself. I was at the shop from open-close seven days a week. In my downtime there I got even more serious as a writer, and published a pamphlet of my first shared work. I also had time to pick a guitar back up after several years and began writing music seriously for the first time. Yet even though there were many great things about owning a head shop, there were also lots of bad ones.

At the time there was good reason to be paranoid of a bust, especially since my shop was in the exact same property as one of the biggest head shop busts in history. I became increasingly skeptical of government when I saw how their permits and taxes and other regulatory functions cost me as a small business owner, especially considering that while they profited from my work, they were also the greatest threat to it. I also got a bit jaded. Most customers at a head shop are great. They are full of effervescent excitement and curiosity. Yet others see it as a place where the regular rules do not apply. Because of the nature of the business, they refuse to take the people there seriously or show restraint and/or respect. And I just became worn out from being there all of the time. So after 14 months I sold the shop and left on another one of my adventures.

[The person who bought the shop has done a wonderful job with it and expanded it even more and made it a highly successful long term business. If you are ever in the Iowa City or Dubuque, Iowa area, be sure to visit The Konnexion.]

Working in, managing and owning head shops changed my life in uncountable ways. Most importantly it put me in touch with the idea that marijuana and marijuana businesses have the power to transform minds and lives. Where marijuana and related items are sold, there is a sort of magic. And magic is what our society so desperately needs to recapture to trigger an evolution away from toxic politics, economics and ideologies. The likelihood of more marijuana businesses opening is a hopeful harbinger for humanity. So be sure to visit your local ones as often as possible and vote for their magic with your dollar. You could be helping to change the world!

2 Replies to “This Is What It Is Like To Work In A Headshop”

  1. That was an interesting take on it. I work at and it is the same magic experience that you describe but in Colorado with legal cannabis there isn’t any fear of some kind of bust.

    1. JoshuaScottHotchkin says: Reply

      Yeah, it is a very different vibe there!

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