By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
No, you did not misread that headline, or imagine what you saw as you passed 16 West Front Street in Red Bank recently.
Those were hookahs in the window and lining the shop’s walls.
Joining a gym, an upscale clothing store, a puppy boutique and a modish restaurant/night club along the increasingly trendy West Front strip last month, the owners of Tobacco Paradise hope not only to buck the anti-smoking tide, but to do it with exotic devices associated with lazy afternoons in Middle Eastern cafés and bazaars not to mention dorm rooms the world over.
“There’s nothing in Red Bank like this,” said Leo Santani, one of the owners. “It’s really a unique type of store.”
Hookahs aren’t the only merchandise at Red Bank’s newest shop, Tobacco Paradise. There’ll also be a convenience store inside selling soda, coffee, food and…slippers. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi)
Obvious challenges aside, Santani says he and the other members of his family involved in the business decided about two years back that Red Bank was the place to sell their colorful, multi-piped hookahs. One side of the store features an arrary of small to large glass hookahs, backdropping a row of glass cases showing a variety of bowls and pipes.
On the other side, the Santanis operate a mini-convenience store, with coffee, soda and some prepared food. They also sell an assortment of other items, including cough drops, energy drinks, mouthwash, and um, slippers.
Yes, there’s a whole lot going on at Tobacco Paradise, but the focus is on tobacco, Santani says. The store also carries a plentiful stock of flavored tobacco that ranges from the simplistic (strawberry, grape) to the sensational (Sex On The Beach, Pina Colada).
Smoking out of a hookah, which filters the tobacco through water, is a common way to smoke in the Middle East. The benefit is two-fold, Santani claims: drawing tobacco smoke through the hookah removes some of the harmful chemicals and additives a conventional pack of cigarettes has while intensifying the flavor of the tobacco. Smoking from a hookah is a popular leisure activity in places such as India and Pakistan, where Santani’s parents are from.
“You can sit there for two or three hours and not even notice it,” Santini said. “It’s a very relaxing thing.”
There are, to be sure, certain barriers of skepticism to be confronted, and Santani says he understands that. One of them is that the store is little more than a head shop, which may have been in the mind of a furtive teenager who stopped by during a recent interview to buy rolling papers. But Santani notes that at every possible interval of the merchandise there’s a sign that say, “all products are for tobacco use only.”
“That’s a concept we’ve got to get people’s minds off of,” Santani said. “We’re trying to get the wrong mentality out of people’s heads. It’s for tobacco. That’s the main product.”
There’s also the slightly challenging fact that the store’s products can’t legally be used in the store.
Santani says there’s a market for hookahs in the area, though it’s too soon to gauge just strong it will be. But his intention is that he and his family, who are the only employees of the store, will keep their spot along that northern row of West Front near Broad Street.
“We hope,” he said. “That’s any business person. We have to be here.”
The store is open from 11a to 10p Monday through Friday and 11a to 6p on Sundays.