Head Shops and Whole Foods: Countercultural Retailers of the 1960s and 1970s

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 12:30 PM
Room 304 (Hilton Atlanta)
Joshua Clark Davis, University of Baltimore
This paper explores two businesses—heads shops and natural food stores—that blossomed in the late 1960 and 1970s and became major institutions of the era’s counterculture. Entrepreneurs who established these businesses sought to counter what they saw as America’s discriminatory, spiritually bankrupt, “alienating,” and “plastic” consumer culture of chain stores and modern industrial production. These enterprising hippies hoped their businesses would also serve as community centers in hippie hotbeds like Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and the Lower East Side of New York City. Their staff and owners consequently provided an unofficial form of leadership in their respective hippie communities. The stores offered local residents message boards for housing and jobs, as well as the latest issues of underground newspapers. Unlike traditional retailers, they welcomed runaways, the long-haired, the unshowered, the shirtless, and the shoeless.

Head shops specialized in hand-made crafts, tie-dye textiles, posters, incense, and accessories for smoking marijuana. At natural foods stores, hippies and environmental activists bought and sold organic and unprocessed foods, championing such items because their products required far fewer pesticides, fossil fuels, and packaging than the items found at supermarkets.

Countercultural entrepreneurs and their consumers patronized these businesses in the hopes of building a less bureaucratic and less alienating consumer culture that was firmly based in local communities. Amid declining faith in traditional forms of public and institutional life, alternative retailers sought to expand the geography of American public life beyond church, school, and organizational meetings, with their retail stores doubling as community spaces for activists and politically conscious consumers. By the start of the ‘70s, however, some people in the counterculture had become deeply suspicious of these businesses and denounced them as “hip capitalists” who had been coopted by the larger forces of American business and popular culture.

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