NORTHFIELD - Opening a huge retail store that caters to smoking products in an age of anti-smoking fervor could be considered financially risky.
But Kim Betesh, owner of Hollywood Smokin' in Northfield, is accustomed to taking brave chances. She and her husband, David Betesh, own Excitement Video & Toys, a chain of eight adult-themed toy stores scattered across Pennsylvania.
"If it's not controversial, it's not fun," she joked.
Betesh, of Margate, said that through her smoke shop she wants to reinvest legitimacy in her customers' enjoyment of smoking, which is increasingly being pushed to the fringes of polite society.
Her 5,000-square-foot store on Tilton Road sells all manner of glass pipes, hookahs and bongs, all presumably designed for tobacco or other legal herbs.
The store has the hallmarks of a 1970s head shop, with a backdrop of black paint on the walls and Robert Plant's voice growling over the sound system. But signs scattered throughout the premises warn customers to refrain from discussing illicit drugs or they will be asked to leave the store.
"We don't call them bongs. It has a negative connotation. They're water pipes," she said.
Betesh honed her retail instincts while working as a buyer for the television retailer QVC, based in West Chester, Pa. She knows a bargain when she sees one - and when she is being squeezed.
"I'm extremely shrewd at buying. I'm not going to get ripped off because I'm not going to let my customers get ripped off," she said.
The store sells some tobacco products for use in the hookahs. But its specialty is American-made glass products, which are kept in lighted display cases like fine art.
These pieces, made from the same durable borosilicate as laboratory glass, cost between $100 and $6,000, from simple glass pipes to fantastical, abstract creations by master glassblowers and manufacturers such as Headdies based in Dickson City, Pa.
The store also offers "soft glass," pieces made with vivid colors, patterns and designs.
"These appeal more to women," she said of the swirly designs and delicate decorations. "I want to be the B.J.'s wholesaler and offer great value, but still be 'boutiquey' enough to offer unique artwork."
The store has a variety of vaporizers, sometimes called electronic cigarettes, that turn flavored nicotine into a mist through atomization.
Consumers can choose their choice of flavors such as walnut or coffee and even dial the quantity of nicotine down to zero. Some people have used vaporizers as a way to curtail their normal smoking, but Betesh said she makes no claims about their efficacy as a smoking-cessation product.
Employee Stacey Rafalow, of Margate, said that while she still smokes cigarettes, she uses a vaporizer when she is in her car.
"I don't smoke as much as I did. And my car doesn't smell like cigarette smoke," she said. "There are no ashes and I don't get any burn marks on the interior."
Selling these products, as with most of the store's inventory, requires walking a diplomatic tightrope. In some states, electronic cigarettes have come under criticism for offering flavors that might appeal to children as a "gateway" to actual cigarettes, a suggestion that has not been examined scientifically.
"I follow the law whether I like it or not," Betesh said. "I have no personal views about politics. But personally I look to legitimize and standardize this business so the everyday person doesn't have to go into a sketchy neighborhood or feel like they're going to get ripped off."
The store does not sell supplements such as "bath salts" that have been abused as an illicit drug. And Betesh said she doesn't sell her products to anyone 18 or under, even though state law is less black and white about that.
"I don't sell anything I don't want my own kids to get their hands on," she said. "No funky incense."
Since the store opened last year, she has created a strong following in South Jersey, she said.
"We have lots of different customers, from the CFO to the police officer to the average Joe," she said.
Contact Michael Miller:
Location: 801 Tilton Road, Northfield
Owners: David and Kim Betesh, of Margate
Revenues: Not disclosed