Michael Katz, the longtime owner of the Wonderland head shop off Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, is hanging up the hookah.
He’s discounting smoking-related merchandise 50% to 75% on most items and plans to close for good in early February after nearly 50 years in business.
“I had a good run,” Katz said on Saturday of the store that opened in 1975.
Partly it’s retirement, Katz said. He’s 74. But Wonderland also didn’t recover from the pandemic and the 2020 demonstrations in Philadelphia triggered by the killing of George Floyd. Crowds broke one of Wonderland’s front windows and looted the store, tossing merchandise to the sidewalk.
“It broke my heart,” Katz said of the destruction to Wonderland, which an employee of 25 years said was a “counterculture epicenter” at one time.
Katz fixed the window and replaced Wonderland’s glass merchandise counters. But the crowds didn’t come back to the city, he thought, with offices closed for the pandemic and many college students studying remotely. “It’s a disaster in Philly and I could not do it anymore,” he said.
Katz was wistful in the store stocked with water pipes, some of them handblown glass that looked like pieces of art and cost hundreds of dollars. Wonderland also sells rolling papers, incense, apparel and backpacks. Katz recalled how two friends from Mount Airy opened the store in 1975. They expanded to a second store on South Street but a fire forced them to close it. Katz bought out his friends in the early 1980s and has run the business since then.
On Saturday, Katz wore jeans and a hoodie and looked like a cool grandfather with longish and neatly combed gray hair. In the 1980s, he clashed with the federal government over selling drug-related paraphernalia. The city eventually protected him with a special license, he said.
Wonderland boomed between the mid-1990s and 2005, or before the advent of online selling. Katz employed at one time 13 workers and opened the store seven days a week. “I made a nice living for a lot of years,” he said. “We did extraordinarily well. I’ve had enough.”
He attributes the longevity of his store, located in the 2000 block of Walnut Street — the same block as the Wanamaker House condominiums and the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia — to careful business practices. “We ran under the radar. I did not do advertising and if you look at our windows we don’t put up any displays,” Katz said.
Legal medical marijuana dispensaries did not cut into Wonderland’s business as they don’t sell smoking-related paraphernalia and medical marijuana in Pennsylvania is vaped, Katz said.
His last employee is Karen Thompson, 44, who began working at Wonderland as an art student at the Moore College of Art & Design in 1997 and stayed. She disclosed that Wonderland was closing on Instagram. In recent weeks, Wonderland trimmed its hours to Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Before social media, Wonderland was a platform for local glassblowers for water pipes.
“Before online, we were the only game in town” for glassblowers, Thompson said. The quality of Wonderland’s products, she said, “separated us from the gas station-type stores.”