I regularly make the drive out to a local vape shop instead of ordering juice and accessories online. I’ve written about my interest in supporting local, small business already, so I’ll spare the details. Something odd always strikes me whenever I frequent the shops in my area, however: They’re nearly empty. Sometimes, they’d be completely empty if not for the presence of a lone employee, perched on a stool behind a tall wooden bar, neck craned, staring into the vacuous space that is whatever YouTube video they’re almost assuredly watching. I’m not criticizing the employees in these shops, mind you. Whenever I engage and interact with them, they are always knowledgeable, friendly, and encouraging of my decision to stay smoke free.
But the spaces, themselves, feel alien. In another time, in another setting, I’d almost expect the (often lone) employee to be cleaning a glass with a dishrag, nodding to me as I enter and perch myself atop an equally awkward stool at the bar and order something with a name like Hawk Sauce, Forestberry Fusion, or Desert Rain. The borrowed aesthetic of my nearby vape shops is that of an actual bar – or a lounge, I’m sure in some way to reflect the cool of sitting and tasting the unique and often delicious flavors of juice available. There are often high top counters, couches, chairs and long tables for socializing, sometimes even canned drinks and/or bagged snacks available for purchase.
Upon first glance, the aesthetic alone is inviting and feels natural, at least as someone who used to frequent actual bars during my college years. But, the lack doesn’t come from the aesthetic and its attempt at making one feel welcome in the space. The key difference between a vape lounge/bar and a typical lounge/bar is the lack of activities available. Pool tables, dart boards, or even board games are all too absent from a scene that otherwise is familiar to those of us who go out to places that look just like this. Shops I’ve visited appear to have built the concept of social space – a space for a niche community and developing market to meet and enjoy a shared interest – without any of the social engagement typified by the very design decisions of the spaces themselves.
I don’t mean to say that I expect these places to provide social activity for their patrons. Pool tables are expensive and require regular maintenance to be viable. Dart boards potentially cost the shop money in damages. Even board games become yet another component of maintenance and regulation for the already minimal staff levels of these spaces. What I’m really getting at here is, why bother building out the space to emulate something it’s obviously not? I don’t expect anything from these places except to stock and sell me the goods I’m looking for. I think that’s my disconnect, perhaps. I go into a vape shop expecting a shop, and too often am met with a lounge. But, not the lively jazz lounge of yesteryear, nor the gaming hobbyist shops of modernity (as I frequent those, too). It’s an attempt at a lounge in veneer only. It’s been lacquered over with lounge, but it’s still just a shop, near as I can figure.
Why bother? I’m speaking only of my particular experiences in my locale, of course. This diatribe isn’t an attack on vape lounges, nor am I attempting to criticize the desire for the industry to provide such a space for their enthusiasts. But, I am questioning the need for so many – from my personal experiences – to follow what seems to be a trend in the build out of these types of shops, with such little investment in marketing, community engagement, or invitation to enjoy the space outside some bar stools and a couch or two.
If you build it, they will not just come. But a number of my experiences seem to reflect that assumption of some owners/investors in this market. If you’re looking to build community, you have to offer a sense of community. Don’t put up the panel painted like a tunnel – build the tunnel. Or build a more cost effective and functional shop.