Back when cannabis was called pot, and you could “get busted” in every state for selling a pipe to smoke it in, the head shop Annapurna was like a north star for hippie newcomers to Berkeley during the 1960s and ’70s and subsequent generations of seekers and free thinkers, from UC Berkeley students and professors to members of the intelligentsia.
Known for being stocked to the rafters like an old-fashioned five-and-ten — only with incense burning and the Velvet Underground playing — Annapurna is the brick-and-mortar incarnation of its gregarious owner Al Geyer, who during the 1970s and 80s became a state and national advocate for shops like his that sold so-called “drug paraphernalia” for cannabis smokers.
The store he opened in 1972 has become such an institution, it is a required stop for tourists eager to learn the history of Berkeley counterculture and promoted by Visit Berkeley and the Telegraph Business Improvement District. Annapurna is both a source of cannabis supplies and irreverent gifts some might consider shocking, like a couple fornicating on a Sagittarius ashtray or the store’s most popular bumper sticker, “Read a Fucking Book,” which Geyer said teachers loved.
No matter what you think of all that, it’s coming to an end. Geyer expects to close between now and the end of the summer, but may stay open as late as December. It’s all up in the air because Geyer does not have a lease and the five-story building, which also contains apartments, is under contract to be sold.
Geyer’s landlord read about the store’s closing in Berkeleyside and wanted to put in a provision in the contract that Geyer be granted a lease, but the buyer did not agree to that. So Geyer assumes that his soon-to-be new landlord is “not interested in having a smoke shop in this location.”
“I could get a phone call and close any day,” Geyer said.
Right now, everything in the store is half-price.
Geyer also blamed the closing on rising inflation after Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago. Customers simply do not have the discretionary income to purchase anything but necessities.
“We started to be not viable about a year ago,” he said. “It’s starting to come back, but I’m 78 years old. It’s time to move on.”
The store’s closing symbolizes another piece of Berkeley’s progressive cultural past disappearing on Telegraph Avenue. During the pandemic, longtime street vendor Tamai Pearson, 71, who sold batiks, silkscreens and jewelry, left the corner of Telegraph and Durant avenues after almost 50 years due to illness. Geyer reminisced that the street was once full of vendors.
Eulogies for Annapurna began pouring into Berkeleyside as former employees, colleagues and customers learned the news. Customers are also stopping by the store daily to say goodbye, some of them in tears.
“Annapurna was central to the alternative culture world on Telegraph,” said Marc Weinstein, who founded Amoeba Records on Telegraph Avenue with David Prinz in 1990. “There are still a lot of smoke shops around, but they don’t have that association. You could smell it and feel it the minute you walked in there. It was like a living historical marker in Berkeley that will no longer be there, and that’s too bad.”
Tom Dalzell, the author of the book Quirky Berkeley, said that few of the hundreds of posts on his blog gave him more pleasure than the one on Al Geyer and Annapurna, which is 120 pages and chock with period photos.
“Annapurna was part head shop, part imports, a sensory overload of colors and smells and textures. Geyer represents the best of what Berkeley was,” Dalzell said. “His shop made our lives better whether we knew about it or not.”
A refuge for young people
When Clifton Ross, a poet, author and filmmaker, arrived in Berkeley in 1976, disgusted by bicentennial celebrations that came a year after the end of “the national shame” of the Vietnam War, he looked for a head shop and found Annapurna.
“Head shops around the country were the only place where hippies like myself — when I was a young hippie — could find other hippies and find out how people were doing things and learning from each other and experimenting with all sorts of alternatives we were beginning to develop,” he said, from the peace movement to using plant medicines like LSD and cannabis.
Head shops were seen as a refuge for young people disillusioned with the status quo who sought alternative ways of life.
“You could walk in and smell the incense burning and hear the music playing and see someone who looked like you and feel welcomed,” he said.
Annapurna’s reputation as a magnet for young seekers was still going strong in 2000, when Siobhan Bouldin of Fresno applied for a job after discovering the shop while visiting her sister in Oakland.
“I came up here from the Central Valley to work specifically for Annapurna because it was such a huge part of letting you be who you are and the freedom to express who you are,” she said. Because she was 17 when she applied for the job, Geyer called Bouldin’s mother to make sure it was OK. She turned 18 five months after he hired her.
Bouldin became one of the managers and a buyer of the shop from 2001-2004. She found the working conditions to be “incredible.” Employees got their birthday off with pay, and Geyer treated them to a meal. During the ’90s, employees chose an Employee of the Year who was sent to Maui with a partner for a week, car and condo compliments of Geyer.
She described Geyer as being “so sweet and caring and understanding so much about people’s emotions and about who they are and what makes them them.”
Nepal visit influenced stores’ name
Geyer’s foray into head shops began after visiting Nepal in 1968 and smoking hashish there, which was legal.
“That was the first time I ever got really high,” he said. “I loved it and thought it was very good to me.” Geyer’s been smoking cannabis ever since.
A year later, he arrived in Berkeley and opened the head shop Kathmandu, selling cannabis paraphernalia and Nepalese lost-wax bronzes, incense, Black history and Native American postcards, and a book section featuring works by Carl Jung, Hermann Hesse and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The 200-square-foot shop was in the basement of the Berkeley Inn Hotel.
The poet Alan Ginsberg patronized the store, snapping up lost-wax bronzes and borrowing Geyer’s Tibetan human thigh-bone trumpet to use in one of his recordings.
Kathmandu opened on a day that cemented Geyer to Berkeley’s counterculture history: April 20, 1969, the start of the People’s Park activism, when hundreds protested UC Berkeley’s plans to expand its facilities into People’s Park.
On Dalzell’s website, Geyer recalled protesters marching down Telegraph to reclaim the park on May 15, known as Bloody Thursday, which would leave one student dead, another blind, and dozens injured as police clashed with student protesters. Some stood in front of Kathmandu to protect the windows from possible vandalism, and a Channel 9 reporter asked Geyer, “Is my life at risk?”
Geyer opened Annapurna in 1972 in a 700-square-foot store at 2416 Telegraph Ave., what had been Virginia Cleaners. Like Kathmandu, the store was part head shop and part import store.
Geyer had both stores for about 10 years, closing Kathmandu in 1976 after losing the lease.
In addition to retail, Geyer also operated a wholesale company, Berkeley Pipeline, that started in the back of Kathmandu and then on Fourth Street, selling paraphernalia to stores in all 48 states in the continental U.S. and Europe from 1969 to1989.
In 1976, Geyer became the face of Berkeley’s cannabis community when Geraldo Rivera interviewed him for Good Morning America after the state adopted the Moscone Act, which reduced the penalty for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanor.
‘A corrupter of children’
Though head shops had become ubiquitous in cities across the country in the 1970s, by 1979, California and the federal government made selling drug paraphernalia illegal.
A 1982 Supreme Court case put the kibosh on many head shops, then a $3 billion a year industry, by giving state and local governments the right to regulate or ban stores that sold drug paraphernalia. The idea of “community standards” prevailed, meaning that it was up to the community to decide whether it wanted a head shop.
“Nobody in Berkeley wanted to enforce against us,” Geyer said. “That was key to how we existed in Berkeley forever. Most everyone got out of the business because it became dangerous.”
From 1980 to 1992, Annapurna was the only head shop in Berkeley and one of few in Northern California that remained open. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s “just-say-no-to-drugs” campaign led to accusations that head shops were “corrupting children,” Geyer said.
Because of the government campaigns, Geyer became a member and eventually board chairman of the California Progressive Business Association, which fought the paraphernalia laws.
During the Clinton administration, “the pressure was off,” Geyer said. “They basically didn’t enforce from the federal level. Locally, the state stopped worrying about it.”
As California took steps to legalize cannabis, first by allowing medical use in 1996 and then recreational use a decade later, going after head shops became a moot point. With legalization, Geyer saw a loss of interest in his products. “There were a million head shops all of a sudden,” he said.
In his shop, Geyer promoted a diverse and tolerant atmosphere, “where Hell’s Angels could be standing next to hippies and intellectuals with street people.” Nevertheless, he did have a couple of rules. The first: anybody who came into the shop had to behave.
“They were all fine because Annapurna was about that ethos. If you didn’t behave, you were asked to leave. And that worked for us for a half-century.”
Also verboten: asking for illegal things, i.e., drugs. Though Geyer sold paraphernalia, he knew enough to avoid talk of what goes into it.
Geyer, who made his employees managers instead of clerks and buyers who ran the business, credits his employees with putting up with a lot of unique challenges the store demands.
“They had to deal with the craziness of the people, with the potential violence, all the people who asked for illegal things and throw them out,” Geyer said, “and they’d often be there alone.”
In addition to fighting for the right to sell cannabis accessories, Geyer has also been involved in efforts to keep Telegraph Avenue alive and vital and its history intact. During the early aughts, Geyer and Weinstein created the New Telegraph Merchants Association, which visited San Francisco’s Haight Street business leaders, police force and mental health workers to learn from their success.
Geyer said after the first marketing person with the Telegraph Business Improvement District approached him in the early aughts, he spent the next decade “trying to keep Telegraph real.”
“But I was overwhelmed by the powers that be,” he said. “I don’t like to see it get completely trampled over by freshness that puts the past under a rug and tries to suppress it, which is what they say when they’re talking about ‘the new Telegraph.'”
In 2013, Geyer also opposed AC Transit’s plan to create an express bus “landing” on Telegraph Avenue, which drew widespread opposition from business owners. “I always considered that a big victory,” Weinstein said, “and credit Al with helping.”
When Dalzell visited the shop in 2019, the shelves bulged with dreamcatchers, wind chimes, posters, bumper stickers, snow globes, candles, Buddha statues, dozens of incense sticks, peace sign patches, sex toys and pipes of all stripes.
On a recent visit, as Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” played indoors and on a sidewalk speaker, the store was noticeably less crowded. Geyer stopped buying in December.
After he closes the shop, Geyer looks forward to having more time for his latest venture, AnnapurnaLive.com on YouTube Music, where he gets to mix up songs by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Philip Glass, The Black Keys and the Velvet Underground.
He pointed out the latest edition of the East Bay Express, whose readers chose Annapurna as the “best smoke shop” in the East Bay. Last year, it was voted “best pipe shop” and “best head shop,” one of many accolades the store has received over the years.
Geyer also noted that in the ’90s, the store was named “one of the top 10 satanic stores in the country,” which led one woman to shout into the store. The point, he said, is that the store wasn’t universally loved — or even liked — by everybody.
“We were more than pipes. We were the tip of the spear and got a lot of support from the community, the intellectuals, the progressives of the time. We welcomed everybody. We had support from every class and every type of person. They either aligned with us or they didn’t,” he said. “I basically wanted to shake up the boat. I’ve had a lot of fun.”
This story was updated on Aug. 8 with new details that the building Annapurna is in is up for sale.