One might imagine these would be boom times for Chicago head shops, now that the once-illicit product they were always intended to support is being sold legally, with the government’s encouragement.
Not so for the Adam’s Apple, the purveyor of “pipes, papers and other smoking accessories” in West Rogers Park that’s believed to be the city’s longest-surviving such business. On Jan. 31, owner Shelly Miller plans to close shop for good.
Miller, 75, began operating Adam’s Apple in 1969, not long after returning from the Navy, which stationed him on a destroyer in the South China Sea during the Vietnam War.
There were more head shops in Chicago then and in the years that followed. But none lasted as long as Adam’s Apple.
Fueled by heavy use of radio advertising, first on an underground progressive rock program on WGLD-FM and later on the then-new WLS-FM, Adam’s Apple became a frequent stop for peace marchers, draft protesters and anyone else looking to be part of the 1970s scene.
“I offered something for youth or counterculture,” Miller says.
He wasn’t trying to make any political statement, he says. He was just a businessman looking to fill a retail niche.
In those early days, he says, there weren’t a lot of other places to even buy rolling papers.
High Times magazine recognized the store in a 2018 piece on “Pioneers of Paraphernalia” that focused on 10 “legendary” head shops.
By then, Miller’s business already was on a downhill slide, as customers who once had kept the phones ringing to ask for directions to his out-of-the-way location at 6229 N. California Ave. increasingly were shopping online instead.
“I used to be the ‘go to’ place,” he says. “Now, I’m just inconveniently out of the way.”
The final nail was the COVID-19 pandemic keeping customers away even more.
Miller says he kept the doors open in hopes that Illinois’ legalization of recreational marijuana might boost sales. It didn’t.
When I stopped by, Miller, who describes himself as “anti-social,” was kind enough to spend nearly two hours talking about the business. During that entire time, only one customer came in to the now-rundown store — and left without buying anything.
For an anti-social person, Miller certainly has a lot of people recalling him fondly on Facebook and lamenting “the end of an era.”
Some mention that their parents were Adam’s Apple customers before them.
For many years, the business operated on a wink and a nod, relying on euphemisms to advertise its purpose. Even in this age of legal weed, a sign behind the cash register says: “All accessories are designed, marketed and intended for use with tobacco, snuff and legal herbs.”
In the early years, Miller also did big business in blue jeans and what a friend of mine calls “hippie clothing.” But that side of the business collapsed with the economic downturn after the 1979 energy crisis.
In later years, the store was known more for its hand-blown glass pipes and “detox” products that could help someone pass a drug-screening test, Miller says.
There might be few reporters in Chicago less qualified to report this story than I am, having previously confessed to never having partaken, hardly a badge of honor in my age group.
Maybe that explains why I was absolutely stumped by Miller’s large selection of containers of what appeared to be household products, such as Pringles, Comet cleanser and Aqua Net hairspray.
Munchies? Cleaning supplies for the pipes?
“A poor man’s safe,” Miller explains, screwing the bottom off the hairspray can to reveal a hidden compartment.
Why didn’t he try to capitalize on the switch to online sales? He says he’s never owned a computer, which he attributes to “paranoia from the ‘70s.”
“I was surveilled, followed,” he says. “I’ve had people try to set me up.”
Miller says he spent a night in a police lockup in 2001 after undercover officers bought a water pipe, calling it a “bong” in their report. That’s a word Miller would never use.
“Anybody who used an illegal term, we kicked them out,” he says.
His retirement plans are simple: Get back to the gym to improve his health, and ,when it’s safe, travel the country to visit automobile museums. He’s the proud owner of a 1961 Mercedes 300SL Roadster.
“A lot of people say thank you, I did a service, I should feel good about it,” Miller says.
And mostly he does.