I’d never been in Bongz & Thongz before, but I went into this interview with some expectations. The store would probably be inexplicably hazy, with dim lighting and lots of tapestries. I didn’t know much about B&T, but I knew there would be bongs, and I knew the stereo would be blasting Sublime.

Upon entering the infamous store, I was immediately struck by how light it was. The huge front window illuminates a gorgeous and intricate interior, looking more like an artist’s gallery than the cave I so incorrectly imagined. My eyes were especially drawn to the elaborate paintings on the walls. Countless colors and illustrations dance across the interior of the Ann Arbor specialty shop, swirling and careening from wall to wall with the inscrutable beauty of a stoner’s dream. I had to ask about them. Store co-owner Mohammad Hassan, leaning comfortably on the counter and wearing a beanie and an easy smile, remarked that the wall art was “hand-painted, done by one guy.”

For Hassan, this dedication to artistry reaches far past the walls. Since it was established in 2011, Bongz & Thongz has supported local artists and glassblowers, selling only Michigan-made bongs and pipes. The merchandise is elaborate and beautiful — some of the bongs can run as expensive as $1,300, though many are more affordable.

“We hand-pick everything. We’re at a point where artists call us now, and we get to check out their stuff and make sure there are no flaws or any of that,” Hassan said.

***

Hassan broke off from my interview for a moment to help a young woman pick out a pipe. He showed her one shaped like a majestic elephant, pointing out the details in its craftsmanship. I waited while they chatted, then interjected with more questions.

Hassan decided to open Bongz & Thongz because there weren’t any other stores like it in Ann Arbor. There was the Safe Sex Store on South University Avenue, but their merchandise didn’t include anything like a hand-painted glass elephant pipe. Hassan noted the liberal attitude of the locals, and knew that the college atmosphere would be the ideal place to open this passion project.

“Why did I decide to open Bongz & Thongz? Well, you gotta do what you love,” Hassan said. “And Ann Arbor also fell in love with us.”

Locals embraced the store immediately, but the clientele isn’t just stoner college kids. Hassan remarked that his customers don’t fit any sort of profile.

“We get everyone from 18-year-olds to almost dead,” Hassan explained. “People with walkers and wheelchairs come in and buy our pipes.”

But while the community embraced Bongz & Thongz, city officials took a little while to warm up. B&T faced several frustrating setbacks shortly after opening, mainly due to zoning ordinances limiting the sale of sex paraphernalia (the “Thongz” component of the store’s name). This was especially infuriating because the Safe Sex Store (just a few streets down) was able to sell similar merchandise without any objection.

“(Some Ann Arbor city officials) didn’t think it was legal for us to sell dildos — we actually fought them on that,” Hassan said.

Though Bongz & Thongz did fight to include “Thongz” in their store, the basement space is currently empty. Get Curious With SafetyGirl, a city-approved sex shop, used to occupy the lower level of B&T, but since that store closed, Hassan and his associates are now seeking a new strategy.

“I don’t think we’re gonna (open a sex shop) again. We’re hoping to turn the basement into a vape lounge, where people can buy from upstairs and then hang out downstairs,” Hassan said.

So where does that leave Thongz? In the past, Bongz & Thongz used the space to sell costumes and non-genitalia-related products, but Hassan looks forward to turning over a new leaf and converting the space into a vapor lounge.

“But I really want to try and keep (the store’s) name,” Hassan said.

***

After observing the elephant pipe, the young lady in the store inquired about a different one on another shelf. Hassan left me again to help her, and asked if she’d always had gauges (she had). The two conversed like old pals, but it was hard to feel like a third wheel because when he came back to our conversation, Hassan was just as warm and easygoing as he’d been with his customer.

“Bongz & Thongz is a family-owned business. People tend to feel really at home here because we aren’t shy about what we are. We have a huge sign out front that says what we sell in here — people feel welcomed by our name,” Hassan said.

Hassan knows he has the greatest job in the world. Despite the difficulties the store faced early on, it’s grown into a well-established Ann Arbor staple today. Bongz & Thongz is the kind of place where a young lady with gauges and an old man in a wheelchair (and this uptight journalist) can all find beautiful art, unique merchandise and a family atmosphere. For Hassan, that family atmosphere is the hallmark of his business.

“I love that I get to build a relationship with my customers every day,” Hassan said. “I just like to make people happy. In all my years working here, no one has ever left (the store) without a smile.”

***

Three guys burst into the store, momentarily illuminating the room with more of the bright Sunday afternoon glow from outside. But as the door swung closed, the friends relaxed. Bongz & Thongz may just be a store, but when it’s filled with hanging beads and eccentric artwork and cool people, it feels more like a friend’s house. Hassan extended his typical warm greeting to the three new customers.

“Hey guys, what can I help you with?”

I packed up my notebook and winter gear and left before I could hear an answer, but whatever Hassan helped these guys with, you can be sure they left the store with a smile.

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