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THE GYPSY AND THE WIZARD: EAST MEETS WEST AT THE PSYCHEDELIC WIZARD
A Tower mainstay remakes itself as a whole new breed of smoke shop. Take a lesson in shisha from the Wizard.
The first things you notice about the psychedelic wizard are the names of the people there. The owner is always referred to as "The Wizard", and his right hand man is known simply as Gypsy. Normally, I wouldn't tolerate calling someone "The Wizard", but when you've been running a head shop called the Psychedelic Wizard for seventeen years, I guess it just makes sense. And Gypsy?
"I'm a gypsy, so they call me the gypsy. Pretty creative, huh?" he says with a half shrug and a smile.
The next thing you notice is probably the decor. One side of the shop looks like a straight-up head shop, complete with pyrex pipes in display cases, bongs (er... "water pipes") lined up on shelves, vaporizers, and a giant Pink Floyd "The Wall" poster. The other side looks like somebody ripped out the main room of a Middle Eastern lounge and dropped it right in the heart of Tower. Overstuffed couches, ornately carved chessboards, elephant themed wall hangings and a six-foot tall brass hookah in the window complete the look.
The Wizard explained the curious dichotomy to me.
"I started out with the Grateful Dead. Biggest Grateful Dead store in all of California. This whole shop was filled with grateful dead stuff." He says, looking less like a deadhead and more like a grizzled cowboy, complete with handlebar mustache and cowboy hat.
But when Grateful dead merchandise started to slow down in 1995, he made the shift towards glass pipes and other memorabilia. But now he's trying to get away from the 'head shop' image.
"All that stuff over there is marked down to cost," he says, motioning towards a display case full of pipes. "We want to get all that stuff out of here and focus on hookah."
He won't say much about the hookah, though. "You want to know about hookah? That's the man that will tell you everything you want to know."
Gypsy appears from the back of the shop, stepping through a beaded curtain. He looks ripped from the pages of a Lewis Carroll book, complete with top hat, and long curved wooden pipe that he puffs on throughout the night. He starts preparing a hookah for photographer Rachael Olmstead and I while giving us a crash course in what hookah is all about.
"Hookah is this device," he says, pointing to the ornately crafted device on the table in front of us. "Hookah is also the smoking of this device. So when you are smoking a hookah, you are 'doing' hookah. The tobacco flora is called shisha. Shisha is not tobacco though... It means the stuff that you use for a hookah... So that's what shisha means, a lot of people just think it means tobacco."
He prepares a bowl of the "Gypsy's Blend" for us: a mixture of hazelnut, vanilla, and cherry flavor, with a dash of menthol, mint and peppermint. He then sanitizes the ends of a couple of hoses and hands them to us before continuing.
"On a hookah you have a bowl at the top to put your shisha in. So you put your shisha in there and then cover it with aluminum foil, shiny side up. Then we poke holes in it with a toothpick. Then you put your hot coal on there, it has to be red hot. It does not burn the shisha, it heats up the flavors. The flavors go down through a stem that runs the entire length of a hookah and then it ends up in the water in the bowl. The vapors hit the water which creates steam. And all that flavor and steam comes through the hookah hose, and all that steam and vapor is what you are inhaling."
I take my first nervous drags from the hose and get what tastes suspiciously like... air. Rachael does the same. I figure out pretty quickly that we must be doing something wrong, so I ask Gypsy if I'm committing some kind of hookah faux pas.
"If you're into hookah you generally know that you should cover the tip when other people are smoking. It is a better smoke when other people cover it with their thumb or fingers. It creates better suction. When you get into a three or four hose (hookah), it's really polite because there's so many places where air can leak in and then you can't get the suction," he says with a slight smile.
We take a few more drags and the bowl begins to fill with smoke that looks like cotton candy. After a while, the flavor develops. It feels strangely like I am eating watermelons, and the sensation is entirely pleasant. I ask Gypsy some to tell me more about hookah, and he is happy to oblige.
"It's a social device. These were used in harems, concubines... What they would do is sit around and smoke hookahs and converse. It was etiquette, it was high esteem, it was classy... Just like owning a limo versus owning a bug. When you smoke hookah, you are partaking in a very high class social event. And because the smoke is so flavorful, you're just enjoying it... pretty soon you start talking, you start socializing and meeting other people. And it's small enough in here that it's like a living room. It's very much like a living room party every night where we've had lots of people who don't know each other, and by the end of the evening they know each other by name. We get people in from all walks of life. We've had a Canadian band that sat here for three hours smoking hookah and listening to Rush, and they played at Club Fred that night. We've had a preacher come in all dressed in white, and he smoked out of the clear white hooka. Lawyers, Indian chiefs, everything in between."
Wait a second... Rush?
Here The Wizard chimes in, "You can bring in whatever music you want, and we'll play it for you."
It's nice to know that if you get tired of the Floyd you can get your hookah on to some Portishead.
I manage to get enough information for this article in less than an hour, but I stick around for another two, taking in the atmosphere, enjoying the hookah and the conversation. There's two other customers here, playing chess and drinking coffee. Gypsy tells me about his days as a boy in Brazil, and The Wizard tells me all about surfing in Hawaii.
Prices start at around five bucks a head for an hour and a half of hookah, and you can choose from 30 different flavors. Special blends are an extra dollar, and ice in the hookah is an extra dollar. But if you get tired of one flavor, Gypsy will change your bowl for no extra charge. In addition to selling hookahs and shisha, they also serve a full menu of coffee beverages, and have plans to start offering milkshakes and flavored sodas.
The Psychedelic Wizard Smoke Shop is located at 1472 N Van Ness Ave, Fresno, CA. They can be reached at (559) 268-8203.