There are few places in the local area – or hell, even on Earth – that can shock you with unexpected thrills and bewilderment like East West. I used to come to this place frequently back when I was in college a couple years ago. After all, it was right around the block. What I didn’t know was the seasoned history of arguably the oldest and strongest running ‘head shop’ on the East Coast and, well, the United States as a whole. Opened in 1971 by Alexander Suvino, East West started as a humble little store selling primarily music merch and tees. The store is still a Cuban staple of Union City as Alex is actually the son of Cuban immigrants who came to the States in the 1940s.
As for the name of the store, it finds its origin from an album titled East-West by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. I decided to give it a listen before heading out to meet Alex in person. Of the nine tracks I heard, my favorite was the eponymous last one. A 12-minute epic dedicated to the gravely sounds of the late 1960s rock ‘n’ roll era. It reminded me of The Doors’ song “The End”. Another nearly 12-minute epic proving that the counterculture machine of the Love Era was alive and ready to kick ass. That same vibe blankets the atmosphere of East West. Inside, it’s still 1971. The collectibles, band merchandise, clothing, and even the interior design are reminiscent of “Bell Bottom America”.
When asked what sparked his desire to open such a store, Alex answered with three very poignant words, “It was needed”. 1971 was a tumultuous year for young Americans. The War on Drugs was formally declared by President Nixon at the same time that he lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Prior to this, the young men being deployed onto the front lines had no say in who their commander in chief was. I think about that often. In 1960s America, at the age of 18, you could fight for our country but you couldn’t decide who ran it.
Alex Suvino, now in his 70s and a veteran of the Vietnam War, understood that places like his own store were a haven for those who needed it. I don’t think he could’ve predicted just how cherished it would become to generations in the coming decades. Fifty-two years later and people still flock to this place. Either for a new bong, a dazzling skateboard, or something to service the goods if you catch my drift. Celebrities like Matt Dillon, and many rappers, have walked in, according to Alex. Despite its notorious appearance today, it wasn’t always like this.
Originally, East West was quite small. Prior to their opening, the space they’d eventually call home was originally a Tea Room. Alex would go as far to colloquially call East West “The Tea Room” for this very reason. It was made up of only the front right section parallel to the present-day counter. In fact, if you look at the ground, you can still see where the two separate doorways for East West and their once neighboring chiropractor used to be. Eventually, that real estate opened up when the doctor next door decided fraud would be another one of his specialties. “We were potheads, if anyone was going to get in trouble, it would’ve been us but the chiropractor ended up being the one going to jail.” Alex said jokingly.
Nowadays, the store has its own dedicated sections, each carving out its own special niche. The front being mainly for band merch (all music from the 60s, 70s, and 80s) and the back – which was originally separate apartments – for swords, knives, and bb guns. Ya know, the essentials. In case you need to take over a small country, stage a coup, shit like that.
Upstairs is where the interesting part begins. A bright red spiral staircase leads up to “The Love Room” and “The Pipe Museum”. Both are, arguably, the primary reasons many find themselves here. I remember first walking up here at 19, and the only words that came out of my mouth were, “What in the fuck?” I’m talking silicon asses to dildos that would make a horse cry. As for the smoke shop, it’s equally impressive. Bongs and pipes ranging from the bizarre to the mundane litter the walls.
It’s not so much about the products themselves but the presentation. In Alex’s own words, “We’re actually like a museum.” There’s really no better way to summarize the essence of this place. In fact, speaking of essence, I was also invited into Alex’s office upstairs which, prior to this visit, I had no clue existed. Every surface is adorned with a figurine or collectible, from The Beatles to the late Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee Herman. It’s an impressive workspace and the definition of eye-candy.
East West is truly a strange and memorable world that has something for nearly everyone. It’s a relic in its own right and, thankfully, one that hasn’t gone under appreciated. It’ll continue to be a staple for many in Union City. And as of 2018, it’s also becoming a part of the lives of Coloradans. Alex’s son, Luke, moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado in 2017. By opening another branch elsewhere in the country, Luke effectively brought his father’s legacy with him. Who’s to say what else the future holds for this once tiny head shop in the quiet streets of 1970s New Jersey.
I can only say one thing with certainty, which is – to quote the great Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator – “I’ll be back”.
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