Lighting Up

Sammy Chamino, Max Young, and Sasha Zabar, co-owners of the White Buffalo. Photos by Jennifer Lu.

I took a drag, and the vapor was thick and harsh. The nicotine of a cigarette; the flavor of a hookah. My first taste of #VapeLife left the lungs feeling clean.

Inside the brick walls of Chapel Street’s White Buffalo Vapors, I sat at a hardwood counter known as the “juice bar.” Behind the counter, shelves held rows of brightly colored vials of “e-juice” — liquid nicotine mixed with flavored oil — everything from the woody notes of a heavy cigar, or a light strawberry blend. It was simple: choose a flavor, press a button on the vaporizer to heat the oil, and inhale.

Since its invention just a decade ago, “vaping” has exploded into a billion-dollar industry. E-cigarettes, which seek to imitate the look and feel of a traditional smoking experience, are the most talked-about part of the trend, as a safer alternative to old-school cancer sticks.” E-cigarettes can be found in gas stations and pharmacies, and they are relatively cheap. But, until White Buffalo Vapors opened in March, high-end vaping was yet to be found in New Haven. The pipes aren’t meant to replace old-fashioned smokes; crafted in the shape of ornate tobacco pipes or steampunk machines, they can cost hundreds of dollars and are meant for long-term use. Since it was my first time vaping, I didn’t drop any cash; Noah Morganson, an employee, lent me his pen-shaped vaporizer.

If Chapel Street passersby happen to look in these days, they’d probably see a handful of people inside, talking and vaping. But the owners of White Buffalo — Sammy Chamino, Sasha Zabar, and Max Young, all avid vapers and ex-smokers under thirty — have big plans for the space. They started with a register, some mismatched furniture, and a small case featuring a few expensive vaporizers, but now they are dreaming big: coffee, live music, a rustic vibe. This August, they tore out a drop ceiling and linoleum flooring to expose an old white tin roof and pine floor, leading all the way to a small back patio area, in preparation for a grand opening in the fall.

vape 1
New Haven’s first e-cigarette lounge opened in March.

“We’ve had escaped convicts and police, firemen, and bus drivers. And lots of hipsters,” says Young, a quiet man with a dark beard and mustache. “We want to continue that kind of diversity.”

But the crew is still fighting against public distrust. E-cigarettes have exploded onto the market without any comprehensive health studies or FDA regulation, leading to a frenzy of media hype: rumors of a suicide by liquid nicotine injection, reports that e-juice shares ingredients with antifreeze, accusations that the industry deliberately markets to kids by offering flavored juices. Some concerns are justified, because e-juice spilled on skin can be fatal, certain low-quality juices are indeed made with toxins, and no data on the possible effects of second-hand smoke from e-cigarettes exists. But the owners of White Buffalo Vapors insist that they only sell high-quality, domestic, natural juice, and they do support certain precautions, like age restrictions on purchases. For the most part, though, they bring a playful attitude to their “vapeangelism” advertising, making liberal use of the #VapeLife hashtag and posting tweets like “Our #ecigs have all been sanctified & carved with protection sigils. No demonic influence in our vapes! Enjoy PURE flavor.”

On online forums, vapers are defensive of their choices, calling out people they dub “ANTZ” (Anti Nicotine and Tobacco Zealots). They provide testimony of their improved health since switching from analog cigarettes, and rejection of perceived anti-vape “scare tactics.” But at White Buffalo, the wacky group of vapers I meet are downright friendly, eager to bring new members into the fold; one tells me vaping turned him into a hobby electrician, since he worked on his vaporizers, while another describes how users will finish a single bottle in the shop by smoking over several hours.

Chamino, an energetic man who sports a wiry beard and army style jacket, points out that the customer base for vaping is as wide as that of cigarettes, including everyone from “blue collar workers to trendy Hollywood people.” That diversity brings an eclectic feel to the shop, but it may make it difficult to built cohesion there. Still, as people linger and vape, they bond over their fringe subculture.

They’re setting out to create a new community and establish an industry. Vaporizers, still in the wild west of untested products, owe some of their cool to pure novelty, but the goal of the White Buffalo folks is to stay ahead of the herd, and create a spot where vapers will come to stay.

Tim Follo is a junior in Morse College.

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