Wild Side Smoke Shop starting to catch after 1-year anniversary

Robert+Essex+proudly+holds+up+a+complicated+piece.+Portrait+by+Sonny+An+%7C+The+Daily+Illini

Robert Essex proudly holds up a complicated piece. Portrait by Sonny An | The Daily Illini

By Elizabeth Dye

Despite its discrete, almost hidden location in the Green Street Center, Wild Side Smoke Shop is catching on with the C-U community. 

Even with hundreds of glass water pipes, pipes and attachments, Wild Side is faced with a location farther from campus, between Neil and Locust streets, which prevents some students from making the trek.

But it is manager Robert Essex and sales associate Andi Paugel that keep the customers coming back.

Past the store entrance’s lighted displays, featuring a brand new $1,300 glass water pipe decked out in orange and blue hues, Essex and Paugel greet customers and chat among the wide, colorful selection of glass pieces. 

On Monday afternoon, Essex, donned in a faded olive, army-style jacket, joked with customers in between puffs of the E-hookah he carries in his necklace. Paugel, donned in mostly black and a greenish-grey hooded sweatshirt, bobbed her head to the electronic music filtering throughout the store.

“Once or twice a week is like Christmas morning because we get to unwrap new pieces,” Paugel said and motioned to the orange and blue piece on display. “This one was just taken out of the bubble wrap today, and we’re hoping a big Illini fan can give it a new home.”

January marks a new year for the shop, having just celebrated its one-year anniversary last month. Just over a year before, Wild Side was but another budding idea for Champaign.

The larger corporation of Wild Side is dedicated to selling glass pipes, water pipes and equipment for tobacco. It began less than a decade ago to bring higher-end glass products to consumers; now, Wild Side stores are open across the United States. 

Essex was asked to bring the first Wild Side Smoke Shop to Champaign — actually, the very first Wild Side in Illinois — in August of 2013. After more than a year working as a car salesman and doing other odd jobs, he wanted a break from sales. But opening Wild Side wasn’t a career move he wanted to pass up. 

“Wild Side was a huge opportunity for me,” Essex said. “I’ve always wanted to blow glass and get into this industry.” 

Although Wild Side is farther than two popular smoke shops on campus, Essex says his shop is able to draw in customers because of his and Paugel’s friendly approach and their dedication to high-quality glass.

Now, in January, business is growing faster than ever, Essex said. With little paid advertising, Essex believes their interactions with customers are what keep them coming back and spreading the word about the shop to others.

Additionally, Essex and Paugel try to offer the best deals with frequent discounts to regulars.

“We’re looking out for your interests,” Essex said. “I can take a price hit a little and give my customers a deal, so they can walk out of here with something they can be proud of.” 

Customers like Tom Dieter, sophomore in LAS, frequent the smoke shop.

“I used to go to the shops closer to campus until I found Wild Side last year,” Dieter said. “They’re always trying to cut you the best deal with quality glass you don’t find everywhere.” 

And for as many college students that frequent the shop, Essex said, there are just as many working class adults and other customers some might not expect.

“Even the college students that come in are all so diverse and different, yet all love glass,” Essex said.

Essex also likes to periodically host customer appreciation giveaways, where one or more prime glass products are raffled off on a specific date and time. Customers can earn raffle tickets when they buy items, which are then put into a drawing for the prizes.

As much as they appreciate their customers, Essex and Paugel said they pride themselves even more on the love of the products they sell.

“We try to fill our store with higher quality glass,” Essex said. “We would much rather discount a piece of glass than sell you a very cheap piece of glass.”

Essex says it is their commitment to selling almost entirely glass products that earns them respect. 

“We only sell glass,” Essex said. “We don’t sell tobacco, or so many other products that other smoke shops sell to subsist. We really live on just the glass.”

Most of Wild Side’s products are shipped from California, where glass blowers craft pieces for the store.

When not dedicating his time to selling glass products, Essex DJs at local venues. 

Known as DJ Res S-X, Essex helps run the White Rabbit, an event at C-Street every Monday night at 9 p.m. There, EDM DJs play music throughout the night, and the “Flow Art” community, a movement-based art form that integrates music and traditional dances with props and lights, displays their skills. 

While he has hopes to continue his DJ career, Essex sees an even brighter future for Wild Side. 

“The glass blowing and glass equipment industry is going be so big in the next couple of years. I really can’t wait to see that,” he said. “And I would love to spread the gospel of glass this whole next year in business.”

Elizabeth can be reached at [email protected].