By Matthew Gundrum —
In the promotional video for local Menomonie business Black Thumb Glass, it’s clear the owner Mike Roe is insistent on clearly defining the establishment’s image.
“We’re not a head shop,” he says in the video, “we’re not out to push all the little trinkets into the community.”
“Head shop” is the term typically used to describe a retail center specializing in the sale of paraphernalia. This particular definition has cursed the term with a negative connotation.
Black Thumb Glass hopes to change this.
Mike Roe started Black Thumb Glass LLC in 2012 after he grew dissatisfied with the nomadic and financially draining lifestyle of an independent glass blower. June of 2013 marked Roe’s initial business venture when he opened the first Black Thumb Glass location in Eau Claire, Wis.
Three years later, Roe opened another location in Menomonie.
The store primarily carries glass pipes with a lesser assortment of hookah and e-cigarette accessories. Naturally, a product line such as this would seem to imply the head shop definition. However, Roe is on a mission to clarify what he believes to be a misrepresentation.
“We don’t call ourselves ‘pipe makers’, we’re glass blowers. We do lots of different things. That’s really what we’re trying to put out there,” he said. “We focus on the glass and that’s what we do.”
To hone this focus, Roe made a very conscious decision to set up a work bench and torch directly behind the store’s front window. Throughout the day, in-house glass blower Chad Christensen can be seen heating and shaping glass to create one-of-a-kind pieces.
Christensen, a long-time friend of Roe, started working at the store as a subcontractor in early October. He entered the realm of glass blowing when the 2008 recession cost him his construction job. Over time, he developed his own unique viewpoint on glass.
“It’s not an art,” he said in regards to glass blowing. “It’s a craft. It’s a skill set. Art, by definition, is total freedom and the ability to create anything you want. For me it’s not about expressing myself, it’s just taking pride in what I do.”
But despite this craftsman perspective, Christensen and Roe want to focus on diversifying their product line to reflect the artistic side of glass as opposed to the functional side, which is what their store currently specializes in.
“We’re still coming out of our shell. We’re going to branch out and work in other areas too,” said Roe, citing wine glasses, candle stick holders, ornaments and necklaces as future prospects for their diversification plans.
Menomonie police chief, Eric Atkinson feels that these future efforts are essential for Black Thumb Glass to garner significant acceptance in the area.
“I think it’s great that they’re thinking of branching out,” he said. “If they’re focusing in on the artistry, I think that helps. Anything you can do to maintain legitimacy within the community.”
Atkinson expressed his own feelings towards their work. “Their stuff is fascinating, it’s quite exquisite and it takes a real talent. I don’t know how they do it.”
This is the exact type of reaction Black Thumb Glass hopes to evoke from customers: one of awe and appreciation. The establishment also hopes to reach the point where they can move beyond their current niche market and into a broader one.
“Eventually, we’d like to share our talent with everybody,” said Christensen. “It’s about having something in my display case for everybody. I’d like it to where everybody who walked through that door sees something they just can’t live without.”