By David Urbanik
Nestled among the bars, restaurants and the blocks of apartments that run along Fry Street in Denton, Texas is a squat and ancient looking building, painted with zebra stripes and lined with shoots of bamboo. If not for its color scheme, it probably wouldn’t attract much attention from passing college students or bar hoppers. Without its stripes and upturned sign, the little shop that inhabits 113 Fry Street might not stand out as anything more than one of the few remaining structural relics in the century-old neighborhood. To a keen eye, however, the cracked and overgrown sidewalks, distinctive facade and weathered appearance all provide clues to the building’s unique past, kept a secret only by the passage of time.
As the Fry Street neighborhood continues to develop and with the inevitable yearly succession of new college students passing through, it is easy to miss the historical value that local institutions like The Zebra’s Head Smoke Shop have to offer. Many may be surprised to learn that the old zebra building is steeped in nostalgia and local history, and is a living fossil in an otherwise evolving community. It is a part of Fry Street’s culture that has survived the test of time and has managed to be successful in a competitive industry. Its story and its ability to thrive continues to contribute to the central legacy of the neighborhood, even as that neighborhood transforms.
The First “Head Shop”
The structure now known as The Zebra’s Head Smoke Shop, originally erected in the 1940s, spent its early years as a hair salon. The salon eventually closed but the building remained, and in 1967 it was reopened as the Birminghem Balloon Company, an alternative novelty shop with a hippy flair that also sold smoking accessories.
“It has always been a smoke shop, but in the beginning, they had more of a lifestyle emphasis,” General Manager Tyson Wright said. “They sold tapestries, balloons and art from the far east.”
It was the first shop of its kind in Texas and the third of its kind in the country behind only New York and San Francisco, according to owner and former UNT student Travis Sample.
In 1969, the original owners took out an advertisement in the Denton High School yearbook that promised to offer customers “things for the head.” Legend has it that this ad prompted customers, such as UNT student Don Henley of the Eagles, to refer to the store as the “head shop,” thereby coining the term. This trend then encouraged the owners to rechristen the store, Texas’ Original Headshop.
“That is probably more of an urban myth,” Wright said. “I don’t know if that’s true, but it is interesting, because now it is vernacular for any smoke shop that offers more than cigars.”
In the decades that followed, the ownership changed hands several times and the merchandise evolved. By 1991, the store was mostly selling CDs and records with some alternative smoking accessories on the side.
“I discovered the shop in 1991 when it was Fry Street Records and Things,” Sample said. “My friend Dennis then began renting the building in 1994 and changed the name. Eventually, I became the general manager until he passed away in 2014. I purchased the business from his estate. ”
Sample moved the business away from the music aspect and instead chose to focus almost exclusively on smoking accessories.
Regarding smoking accessories, Sample and Wright say that technology had mostly stayed the same until the late 1990s. The most significant change and a boon for the industry came with the introduction of readily available hand-blown glass. Custom glass products would eventually come to dominate the market and become the most common material sold in shops like The Zebra’s Head. Customers would not only be buying a smoking device, but they would be buying a work of art. The size and price of these devices varied considerably and provided a consumer with a virtually unlimited number of style options.
Sample and Wright both take pride in sourcing their glass pieces from local artists as well as offering a wide selection for the customers. They also take pride in their knowledge of the product.
“You can’t get something personalized with any other material like you can with glass,” Wright said. “There is something about the allure of glass that sucks people in. Finding a glass artist you like is like finding a band you like.”
Customers seem to respond well to the efforts The Zebra’s Head takes to stay knowledgeable about their products and their ability to provide good prices and genuine customer service. These traits, it seems, are their secret to success.
“They have solid prices,” UNT psychology major Dylan Rakestraw, 21, said. “They are cheap compared to other places around Dallas-Fort Worth.”
“I go to The Zebra’s Head a lot,” Maddie Gostkowski, 20, a UNT advertising major said. “The dudes there are nice, and they know what they’re talking about. I feel like I’ve even become friends with them.”
Places like the Zebra’s Head are a dying breed on Fry Street these days. The area saw a drastic change in the mid-2000s when several beloved landmarks were condemned to make room for a new block of student housing and space for several chain restaurants.
What once was seen as a place to get weird has now become sanitized and gentrified.
“It has lost so much of the flavor it once had,” Sample said. “So many painted buildings are gone that gave it that art district feeling. And now there is a drab monstrosity of an apartment building that literally stole my morning sun.”
Time will eventually tell if The Zebra’s Head will be able to remain in the neighborhood amidst the area’s continuing waves of gentrification. Either way, the shop continues to represent the tradition of the old Fry Street and carries on the unique culture that grew from it.
Tyson Wright takes a positive tone about the future of The Zebra’s Head, “Although some people may see our store like a liquor store or a place for vice, I would like to think we are good neighbors. We really do care about our community,” he said. “We like the school, we like the town, and we like the people who live here, and I think that makes it easier for our store to be successful in this area.”