Conrans of counter-culture: Whether it's a bong, a hubble-bubble or exotic Phillies Blunts, Alix Sharkey knows who sells them. Just don't ask what for

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The revolution will not be televised, they used to say. But will the counter-culture be sold over the counter? If so, then shops such as Sohi Soho may become the department stores of the New Age.

This mini-mart at the busy end of London's Berwick Street fruit market has built up a healthy and varied clientele since it opened last April Fool's Day. Its business is pleasure: from smoking paraphernalia to embroidered cushions, from incense to Indian jewellery, from wind chimes to the latest ambient music from San Francisco.

All this will be familiar to those who frequented 'head shops' in the turned-on, tuned-in Seventies, when any place selling cigarette papers, incense and Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics qualified as an outpost of the avant-garde.

These days extra-large Rizlas are available in many high street tobacconists, exotically scented candles are on sale at John Lewis, and Robert Crumb's black-and-white cartoon funnies seem to have more in common with the Marx Brothers than the Simpsons. In a recessionary climate, the would-be Conran of the counter-culture must stay one step ahead, mixing old and new, staples with novelty items, in an attempt to lure increasingly sophisticated and discerning customers.

Sohi Soho's success is due largely to the variety and exclusivity of its stock, coupled with its streetwise 'vibe'. It sells perhaps the widest range of smoking paraphernalia in the country: a vast array of exotic pipes, many handmade by craftsmen, is supplemented by papers and bongs of all shapes and sizes, cleaning equipment, mesh screens and customised lighters.

It also stocks every conceivable hippie-ish luxury item, from Hindu deity postcards and 'energy crystals' to silver nose-studs. At the back of the premises is Ambient Soho, selling cutting-edge dance and chill-out music, neo-psychedelic posters and club clothing.

The owner, Masha Kolomeitz, previously sold pipes, chillums and papers from a shop in north Wales but, tired of raids by the police, returned to her native London. While selling 'junk and antiques' in the market, she decided to sell some old stock. 'I had a few pipes, so I put them on the stall and they flew out. I decided to go into partnership and take a lease on this shop.'

Ms Kolomeitz says business has been 'brilliant' ever since. 'It's partly because we've got a name, but also because we're cheaper than a lot of the others.'

Her customers range from East End kids to business people and secretaries who drop in for papers or pipe meshes at lunchtime. 'Some of the people who come in to buy pipes and papers you'd never dream of meeting here. They look so conventional,' she says.

Indeed, in the run-up to Christmas, Sohi Soho was filled with shoppers who might look more at home in Liberty, rather than this niche retailer catering to the current psychedelic renaissance.

Apart from silver jewellery and ethnic beads, best-selling gifts include handmade 'teddy bear' pipes, which are carved from wood and covered with floral patterns; and the cast bronze 'mushroom' pipe, which unscrews for use and reassembles to become a pendant.

However, the cosy idea of a pothead's Peter Jones will remain a fantasy as long as marijuana consumption continues to be illegal, as Lee Harris can attest. For 21 years he has run Alchemy in Portobello Road, London's oldest 'culture shop'. Though many describe Alchemy as a 'head shop', Mr Harris dislikes the term. It is not just a matter of semantics. In July 1990, he was jailed for three months for 'offering for sale articles which may be used in the preparation or use of cannabis, believing they would be so used'.

His crime was to sell cigarette papers and a hubble-bubble pipe to an undercover police officer. Although his conviction was overturned on appeal, he is cagey about any description that might arouse the wrath of the law. He stresses that the pipes and papers in his shop are for smoking tobacco: how customers use them is their business. He also points to other merchandise: incense, herbal cigarettes, T-shirts, posters and magazines.

'The stock reflects the changing nature of pop and youth culture. We started with Indian articles. In the early Eighties we did a lot of Rasta stuff. Now, of course, it's more to do with rave culture.'

Mr Harris, 57, says a lot has changed since the head shops first appeared 15 years ago. 'I look at this now and think 'Wow, did I really do this in 1977?' There was a time recently when you could have been drawn and quartered for something like this.' He is referring to the first issue of Home Grown, a magazine for cannabis smokers, which he edited and published. Then, nobody batted an eyelid.

But in 1986 Britain amended yet again its Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, making it a criminal act knowingly to provide paraphernalia for drug consumption. Shopkeepers were suddenly expected to police their customers, and Lee Harris, a soft but prominent target, was made an example to others. 'People were terrified,' he says. 'And suddenly you couldn't get papers and pipes - they all disappeared.'

Ms Kolomeitz remembers the paranoia surrounding Lee Harris's arrest and trial. 'Wholesalers stopped doing pipes, chillums, skins, scales and even books. People had their entire stock confiscated.'

Even now, she has to import most of her stock from Amsterdam, although she is keen to support British craftsmen such as the Bear, a 23-year-old pipe-maker from Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

Earlier this year, the Home Office released statistics showing that in 1991-92, police prosecuted fewer than half of those caught in possession of hashish or marijuana. Public statements by senior police officers advocating decriminalisation have also reduced general anxiety over marijuana consumption. Perhaps this relaxed mood has led to the current resurgence of head shops.

But while the hysteria of a few years ago has receded, retailers such as Masha Kolomeitz and Lee Harris still operate in a legal grey area. 'You have to be very careful to remain on the right side of the law,' says Ms Kolomeitz.

Perhaps the change of attitude that has taken place since Mr Harris's arrest can best be gauged by the shop window of Inderwick & Co, in Carnaby Street. Britain's oldest established tobacconist, founded in 1797, currently displays pipes, bongs and hookahs as well as a wide selection of rolling papers. Until very recently a large dummy joint was also on view.

Keeping up with the times, the shop also gives prominent space to Phillies Blunts - stout cigars popular with American hard-core rappers, who unroll and repack them with a potent tobacco-marijuana mix. Thus disguised, the 'blunt' can be smoked in public.

Inderwick's manager, Paul Anderson, says that while tobacco products account for 80 per cent of his business, rolling papers, bidis (Indian cigarettes), pipes and bongs all sell in volume.

Just after Lee Harris's arrest, police came to his shop and warned him not to sell pipes with a small bowl, since these were meant for smoking cannabis. Since then, he has not been troubled - yet oversize Rizla papers remain one of his best-selling lines.

'I can guess what they're using them for,' Mr Anderson said. 'But I don't ask, and I don't want them to tell me.'

Inderwick's also sells a legal herbal mixture called Yooba Gold, at pounds 8.95 an ounce. 'They tell me that gets you high, but I've never tried it myself.'

And the dummy joint? 'Oh, the boy did that for a joke,' Mr Anderson said, referring to his son. 'I asked him to take it out, though.'

(Photograph omitted)

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