It stands as sentinel to the hippie generation that gave Ocean Beach so much of its eclectic character back in the 1960s. The Black, a one-of-a-kind smoke shop, has operated on Newport Avenue for more than 50 years — longer than any other business on the block.
“We’ve been kind of the glue that’s kept it all together,” owner Kurt Dornbusch said. Recently, this OB landmark earned another distinction: The Black was named one of the Top 10 Legendary Headshops in America in the December 2018 issue of High Times: “The store’s survived recessions and raids, and it still sells hacky sacks and huaraches to local surfers. If you come to San Diego, check it out. It’ll blow your mind.”
“That was pretty exciting,” Dornbusch said with a wide grin. “It’s pretty impressive to be on the list and it makes me feel proud.”
Dornbusch said he took over The Black in 1981 from its original owner, who named it “The Black” in 1968, because from the get-go, the store made money and was always “in the black.” The name stuck and so did the profits.
“I started working there at age 19 when my brother was store manager,” he explained. “A position opened up, so he talked to the owner and I came in. I had an interview on a Friday and started the next Monday.” Within two weeks, Dornbusch was assistant manager.
The owner left the management of the store to Dornbusch and his brother for the most part. “He liked to travel the world, he liked horse racing,” Dornbusch recalled. “While we were running the store for him, he was off gallivanting all over the place. He was looking to sell it to my brother and me, but my brother reached a stagnation point, so he decided to leave and I decided to take it over.”
Becoming the new owner proved to be daunting for the then 24 year old, but Dornbusch said he soon realized it was a matter of doing things the way they’d always been done. Bottom line: “People came here to spend their money to get their smoking goods ... the inside hasn’t changed that much.”
And neither have the customers. Dornbusch explained: “Back then, the customers were much the same as they are now. It was an eclectic mix of people ages 7 to 70. We’ve always had stuff for children ... lots of children’s clothes. Parents would bring their kids in all the time. We’ve always had a lot of older clientele, too. I remember when we had Congressmen and people on City Councils coming down for pipes. We never tell ... it’s always confidential. People come in and it’s nobody else’s business.”
At the time, The Black was one of only five major smoke shops in San Diego, so it attracted a lot of attention from law enforcement agencies because marijuana was illegal.
As Dornbusch recalled: “Back then, the feds and the state people, they really wanted to shut smoke shops down because they knew we were just selling this stuff for marijuana, I guess. So we joined the RTDA — the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America. We always carried pipe tobacco and rolling tobacco and we had snuff and snuff bullets and snuff spoons for that kind of thing. So everything had a purpose that could be used legally.”
Despite that fact, he said federal agents raided the store in the early 1980s and confiscated all the plastic bags and several scales. No one was arrested and no charges were ever filed, but the merchandise was never returned.
Since the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2016, Dornbusch said his sales have not gone up much — only about 5 percent. He’s not surprised, he said, because “people were using before it became legal. Basically, marijuana has been almost legal forever, for a long time. People were always able to get it.”
The many cannabis dispensaries that have opened since legalization don’t sell pipes or smoking materials, so customers still come to The Black for supplies. “Now, we don’t really have to worry about it because if we’re selling a pipe and somebody says we’re going to use it for marijuana (that’s OK) it’s legal,” he said.
Dornbusch pointed out that the secret to his success — and surviving four recessions — is to “keep your prices low. Sometimes you have to go walking to other places and see what they’re selling their stuff for, so keep it at least on their level or try to beat them out. If you keep your prices decent, people will come back. You need good customer service, as well. That’s important.”
Dornbusch, who is about to turn 63, said he’s starting to think about retirement, although he has no successor in mind. And if you’re wondering ... he said he doesn’t smoke marijuana or drink alcohol anymore.
“I’m looking to get it all in order,” he said, after 43 years at the helm. “I still love working here.”