What it’s like to work in ‘Britain’s Oldest Original Headshop’

‘I recall, a man led his family in, then stalled and mumbled, “Ahh! Druggy shop! Druggy shop!”’

Norwich is a university town with many distinct and offbeat stores, one of them being Head in the Clouds, a shop founded in the 1970s which is still in business today.

We spoke to Jake Wyatt – the son of the founder of Head in the Clouds – about what it’s like to work in a headshop, what kind of products Head in the Clouds sells, how the counter-cultural market has changed over the years, and the most recent legal-high ban.

Your website has the headline “Britain’s Oldest Original Headshop”. Can you briefly comment on the history of Head in the Clouds?

Head in the Clouds was established by my father, Martin Wyatt, at 13 Pottergate in 1971, in the area now known as the Norwich Lanes. It was not the first headshop to emerge from the hippie movement, but it has outlived those in the UK that came before it. The business model is best expressed in Dad’s poem adorning our huge paper bag which we’ve been using since our founding year:

From yonder oriental shore,

from Kathmandu and Bangalore,

We’ve gathered ethnic homespun goods,

clothes, footwear, caskets made from woods.

For your delight all’s here displayed,

midst incense, candles, crafts handmade.

But our real gift is love and peace;

We pray that worldly strife may cease.

Tranquillity is th’aspired lifestyle;

Put your Head in the Clouds and tarry awhile.

Poem on the ‘Head in the Clouds’ bag

Over the years, in brief, many things have occurred, the best of which involved love and peace. It’s always been a community hub, and not just a business but a way of life.

Describe your average day at working in Head in the Clouds.

After opening at 9:30, we respond to the needs of the day: welcoming customers, selling, tidying, refilling shelves, unboxing deliveries, putting out new stock, tweaking displays, drinking tea and coffee, answering the phone, chatting to lovely people, burning incense, recycling, compiling orders and ringing wholesalers, going to lunch, going to the toilet, taking photographs to go online, laughing, cuddling, and dancing. Then vacuuming, before closing up at 6.

Martin Wyatt, founder of Head in the Clouds

What kind of people usually come to your store?

A diverse and marvellous range of all humankind, of all ages and backgrounds, interested in seeking out alternative gifts and colourful clobber, seduced by exotic aromas, keen to find keys to enlightenment, wanting a transcendental experience, or to fulfil a sacred teenage rite of passage in buying their first lighter!

What are your most popular products?

At the moment, our best selling stock are incense sticks, rolling papers, lighters, hair dyes, herb grinders, plastic baggies, tins, acrylic bongs, metal and glass pipes, shisha pipes and molasses, rings, brass earrings and silver hoops, anklets and bracelets, fragrance oils and oil burners, digital scales, henna tattoo cones, salt lamps, stickers, bedspreads, cannabis seeds, tumbled crystals, shirts, skirts and dresses, low-crotch harem pants, hooded jerga jackets, tai chi shoes, moneybelts, purses, Nepalese prayer flags, and dream catchers.

Head in the Clouds has an array of counter-cultural products

How has your shop responded to the market over time? What trends or products have gone in fashion then out of fashion? How has the counter-cultural market changed over the years?

Part of the magic of our shop is that people seem convinced that it hasn’t changed since it opened, but this is a wonderful nonsense.

Our range of clothes is constantly evolving, but forever strong on the hippie bohemian front – that will always be a thing – the fashion of the proletariat and those aspiring to get in touch with their inner light.

In the ‘70s, we were selling Afghan coats and loon pants; then anything velvet, and loads of black, lacy outfits and cloaks when the Goth scene was thriving in the ’80s and ’90s. Goth has come back into fashion now, but we’re too into colour. As one of our customers exclaimed recently, “There’s just colour everywhere! There’s nothing better than colour!” Tie-dye and rainbow designs have always been popular.

In the early years, we retailed a lot of underground magazines and comic books, notably The Fabulous Furry Freak BrothersBrainStorm Comix, and early issues of Viz. These gave way in the ’90s to cannabis lifestyle magazines, which lately we have stopped stocking due to diminishing sales, as people are now finding their information and entertainment online and elsewhere.

Developments in technology have improved certain tools that we sell. We used to shift ever so many traditional pan scales; these have been made archaic by digital scales which are increasingly accurate, reliable and affordable. And thanks to enhanced battery power and growing awareness of health risks associated with smoking, sophisticated portable herb vaporisers and electronic cigarettes are currently much sought after items.

Plus, we’ve seen the rise and fall of an astonishing range of psychoactive substances, starting with very mild herbs and party pills, a few fondly remembered years trading psilocybin mushrooms, and then several generations of legal highs.

How has the recent legal high ban affected your business?

Well, it’s been a big waste of time, but a loss of only a small amount of sales. Banning trade of potent chemical legal highs was a reasonable move, and we don’t bemoan that as we stopped selling those well over a year ago because of their social harm. But this anti-scientific, prohibitionist Psychoactive Substances Act has swept away so many other much milder products – natural herbs such as kratom, marshmallow, damiana and blue lotus – that we were selling up until the ban, and would like to again; so we hope that many further exemptions will be issued in regard to this Act.

Legal highs have been banned due to the ‘Psychoactive Substances Act’

Legal highs were out of control, getting dangerously potent, proving a real public nuisance and a crutch to the vulnerable. We took a huge hit to our takings and were abandoned by hundreds of regulars when we opted to cease trading them at the end of February 2015, due to anti-social behaviour, health concerns and distress. We had to downsize our staffing and close our neighbouring sister shop, Feet on the Ground.

Yet it proved a great relief all round, and the dignity and heart of the business has returned. The lightened atmosphere has generated new footfall, and bolstered enthusiasm and focus amongst the staff. And our manageress has travelled to Nepal and India, sourcing some wonderful items, and helping our stock stay fresh, authentic and reasonably priced.

So good riddance to the legal highs!

How does working in a “headshop” compare to working at any other retail store or is there really not a difference?

Headshops deal with certain specialist lifestyle paraphernalia and magical tools that are hard to track down in conventional retail environments, and this attracts staff and customers who are open-minded, counter-cultural and perhaps spiritual, leading to some very stimulating and healing discussions, as well as exciting and satisfying trade.

Outside ‘Head in the Clouds’

I can’t speak for all headshops, as some may be quite dour, but I’d say for us the major point of difference from other retail stores is the atmosphere and benevolent philosophy behind our business. Staff are permitted to play, to look after each other and themselves. We work jolly hard as well, but we value happiness, love and peace in the great hippie tradition! It’s a pleasure to come to work, oftentimes most uplifting, and friends pop in daily for the tonic of being in the Clouds.

Yes, we’re trying to make money and keep people employed, but profits are not squandered. Our proprietor is a considerable philanthropist, and countless thousands of pounds from our trade have been directed towards supporting local arts and charities.

What are the prejudices or misconceptions which some people may have about working at a “headshop”?

Time and again we have teenagers sniggering that “You all smoke weed, don’t you? You must do if you work here!”

Well, no.

The paraphernalia side of the business is what generally leads to the term headshop, but we do sell a mighty load of other stuff. There’s something for everyone. Our shop is very family friendly, and even more so now the legal highs have disappeared, but I guess the bongs can be a little disconcerting for some visitors.

Several years ago, I recall, a man led his family in, then stalled and mumbled, “Ahh! Druggy shop! Druggy shop!” and marched them out again.