Calipoint Exotics Smoke Shop in Brooklyn.
Photo: Andrés Kudacki
In May, a business entity called Convenience in Central Park Corporation registered an address in the ground floor retail space at 200 Central Park South. The signage appeared to indicate that the business would be selling tobacco, but the co-op’s board became convinced that at least one of the amenities offered would be weed. According to a lawsuit filed by the council in August, such a business, on the leafy stretch between the Plaza and Columbus Circle, would ‘harm the dignity’ of the address and violate zoning that prohibits any business ‘out of neighborhood’. . ”
If even Billionaires’ Row pushes away gray market cannabis retailers, the city is truly experiencing a wave. In the year that has passed since recreational possession and use of marijuana was decriminalized in New York, it started to feel like the only new blood on a pandemic-hit retail block was a Blank Street Coffee or a place to buy weed and niche junk food. Since the city’s new Cannabis Management Office has yet to distribute the necessary licenses to sell cannabis, and neither regulators nor law enforcement are cracking down, these retailers are operating in a rambunctious but temporary semi-anarchy. As one store owner told me, “It’s Christmas.”
Among the new dealers, you can choose your fighter: a gallery on Rivington Street that offers you 3.5 ounces of “Space Rocks” with the purchase of a $75 NFT, the highly visible – and towable – weed truck — and more upmarket companies offering memberships and the brilliance of exclusivity (“We’re a social club,” the man who worked the front desk at a place called Pot Shop in Greenpoint told me under a neon sign that read SMOKE EVERY DAY). But the one that feels most in the limelight in this bizarre New York City Kush Rush debut is the weed bodega: part tobacconist, part grocery store, part dispensary, all wrapped up in the aesthetics of a Monster Energy drink. Here, fast-acting entrepreneurs — some with convenience store experience, others just looking to cash in — can try to strike it rich, at least until the state shuts them down.
The weed bodega is becoming a recognizable type. Look for innuendo in the name first: Vibez, Cloudz, Exotic, Fog, Puff. A kaleidoscope of imported snacks is a big giveaway – Korean potato chips, rare flavors of Fanta, Spanish Cheetos shaped like soccer balls – as is a giant inflatable blunt, provided by rolling paper brand Raw, sitting in many windows as a homing beacon. The decor is street-art juvenilia with a touch of stoner and teenage hotness. At an “exotic snack” store on the part of Fulton Street where Clinton Hill becomes Bed-Stuy, the guy behind the counter eagerly asked me to smell a nugget of something labeled “Stripperella.” On the walls, Queens-based graffiti artist Hugus, a sort of weed-bodega Banksy who worked in 50 stores last year and calls his style “trippy cartoons”, spray painted Daffy Duck tearing up a bang so loud as his top hat flew off and Rick and Morty whirl, eyelids heavy, in a cosmic sky above. On Nostrand and Dean, a store with the motto “Read and Weed” also features Rick and Morty in a mural alongside volumes of Camus. In Greenpoint, across from the Pot Shop ‘social club’, the register is adorned with a red-covered SpongeBob, and on a pretty, stripped-back spot in Chinatown, a yellow smiley peeks out from a cannabis leaf next to it. of a sign offering Mac and Cheese Blends and Runtz.
Photo: Andrés Kudacki
The unregulated nature of the market makes it impossible to quantify the number of cannabis bodegas operating here. City data shows a brief but steep increase in tobacco licensing after decriminalization, but there’s no official tally — just an ambient feeling that there’s a weed bodega on every block. Despite the open secrecy, no one wants to talk, especially small shops who fear a possible crackdown.
I met two brothers “in management” at Noise, a chain of nine cannabis stores in New York City—the weed bodega-turned-business—who agreed to chat as long as I didn’t use their names. Like many sellers, they are riding the wave of the gray market while hoping to become legit when licenses open up. As they showed me their new location, on a narrow slice of Canal Street nestled among fake Prada backpacks and Chanel bucket hats, they laid out their vision for becoming the fully organic, organic “Starbucks of cannabis.” The siblings each applied for the first round of licenses in the “justice involved” category: about 150 that the state says will go to New Yorkers with previous marijuana convictions. (Older brother F, who poses as a benevolent kingpin in his Adidas tracksuit, said he was attacked by a group of undercover cops while smoking a joint outside NYU when he was 24 years.) They want to be among the first to officially open. “We want to be the model,” said F.
Neither brother was surprised that the other owners didn’t talk to me. “Everyone is scared,” F explained. Some illicit operators will be denied a license. Others will close of their own accord. The regulated market here will incur tons of costs beyond licensing, which those waiting have heard of totaling $250,000 including security, safety and more, even before sales tax. “You lose 50 to 60 percent by being legal than you’re paying for compliance,” said Earl McGhee, a consultant who works in cannabis distribution in California and has been following the situation closely in New York. According to a survey by the National Cannabis Industry Association, more than a third of nearly 400 companies surveyed said they were unprofitable. In the unregulated market, without any profit loss, the weed bodega is a potential gold mine. A salesperson who asked not to be named told me he knows “lots of people” making up to $40,000 a day selling weed – most of it from California – wholesale and to individual.
In that brief window of opportunity before a more sanitized version of the New York cannabis store rolls in – California behemoth Med Men, where customers browse products on iPads like an Apple Store, already has a flagship on the Fifth Avenue – weed bodegas will thrive. And as long as they’re left to telegraph the nature of their business quite explicitly, so will their garish charm.
Of course, not everyone is charmed. While cops and regulators have largely left weed bodegas alone, co-op boards and neighborhood watch types have become their own version of the city’s DEA. Residents of Brooklyn Heights recently protested the neon signage of a smiling skull at Exotic Smoke Shop on Henry Street, saying it violated Landmarks Preservation Commission rules. “I can think of no greater affront to our community, and I hope their punishment will be swift and severe,” one wrote on the Brooklyn Heights blog. The sign was eventually removed.
Do naysayers find the weed bodega offensive because of what it sells or what it looks like? “We’re not trying to hurt anybody’s feelings,” the man behind the counter at Fulton told me recently. He said people came into the store calling him an asshole. “But people in this neighborhood smoke weed, then.”