Posted April 10, 2015 by Cooper Point Journal in Community

Blowing Clouds

The Business of Vapor in the E-cig Scene

By Ira Zuckerman

For the sole purpose of this article, I inhaled the vapors at the South Sound Vapor Lounge.

Usually, all an outsider sees through the heavy fog are scattered crowds of hunched-over smokers. Once through the door, I entered a world of vapor. Now, it was the outside world which seemed hazy.

6:30 on a Saturday night meant five or six of the regulars loudly vaping at the back counter, a handful of customers waiting around the register, and a couple of dudes loitering around the tasting counter. When I visited, I was one of those dudes.

“Hi, can I help you?” a middle-aged woman strolling over from the back counter asked. She introduced herself as Margo Pierini, co-proprietor of the business. “I’m looking to try out some flavors,” I said. “Well, do you currently vape?” she asked.

“Ah, no.” I started to say, when Pierini cut me off and addressed the group of customers she had just left. “Hey!” she shouted to the counter. “Can you please keep it down?” They obliged. “So you don’t vape. Are you looking to start, or do you smoke cigarettes now, or are you just looking to make clouds cause it looks cool, or what?” It was hard to be articulate and honest about my inexperience.

During the carding, interrogation, and picking of flavors, Pierini’s face started to sour at me. I wasn’t a paying customer.

I motioned to sit down with my free sample in the room’s big, inviting couches, until Pierini snapped at me. “Hey! No, you can’t use the lounge,” she said. “Just stand up here by the tasting bar. This isn’t a ‘come in, use the lounge, vape for free, hookah bar’ kind of place. If you want that, you can go somewhere downtown.” The vapor isn’t for anyone under 18, and the couches aren’t for freeloaders.

“Can you deal with these guys?” Pierini said to the Action Bronson-looking employee, stepping into the back room with other matters. After some short pleasantries, I silently smoked my Froot Loop flavored vapors until we’d both had enough.

From the sidewalk at Harrison and Division, the lounge is just that: a lounge. The thing is, South Sound Vapor Lounge isn’t actually operated around the lounge. “The lounge itself is more for overflow,” co-proprietor Larry Pierini said. He and Margo run South Sound as a husband-wife team.

Larry started smoking cigarettes when he was 14 years old, and nicotine has been a part of his life since. It wasn’t until 2 years ago that it became part of his business.

“My driving force is to keep people vaping, to keep them away from cigarettes,” Larry said. If there are any humanists in the business of smoke and vapor, Larry is one of them.

South Sound Vapor Lounge gives the customer what they can to retain their temporary business. The crew-cut dudes in denim capris and military parkas, the newly-blond girls in Seahawks jerseys, everyone inside gets what they ask for. Some people ask Larry to get them off cigarettes, and according to him, he can.

“I have a customer; her husband divorced her and she started smoking to help with the divorce. 13 years later, she comes to me,” Larry said. “She came in and said ‘Help me get off this.’ Now, she has been totally off—there was an incident where she couldn’t get to an e-cigarette and so she got a pack of cigarettes.”

Larry can even give his own infomercial-esque testimonial to vapor. “I threw my chewing tobacco in the garbage can. I’ve been 100-percent successful from day one. Not even once, almost, a little bit, nothing,” Larry said of quitting his decade-old habit. “You go from a carton-plus a week to no cigarettes in two weeks.”

South Sound sells this tobacco replacement in the form of juice. E-juice. Of course, you’ll need an e-cig if you want to inhale the e-vapors. The problem is what’s inside this vapor, and what it can do to the respiratory system.

A study from Portland State University this past January found that e-cigs with modified batteries can produce compounds containing formaldehyde, which would then be inhaled by the vaper. Of course, only a fraction of e-cigarettes can have the battery voltage modified, and the effect doesn’t do much for the vaper anyway.

Similar studies have trickled down and become the foundation of the public knowledge surrounding vaping. It’s a young technology and its long-term effects aren’t certain.

Larry is frustrated by the public misconceptions of vaping. “I had misconceptions. There’s more inaccuracy — by ten, maybe twenty, maybe fifty-fold — than accuracy in the public conception of vaping.”

In the early search for South Sound’s location, many building owners rejected Larry’s business. “They asked: ‘What are [your customers] using to get high?’ It’s immediately referred to as a gateway,” Pierini said. “It’s no more of a gateway than ice cubes to a cocktail.”

Some of the e-cig brands found in South Sound’s glass cases like Innokin and Kanger also make marijuana vapes, but Larry does his best to keep that association away from his lounge. Even so, he has people trying to buy marijuana from his shelves every week.

What’s really on these shelves is e-juice: glycerol, propylene glycol, flavoring, and of course, nicotine. The hundreds of bottles behind the register look like supplements in a health food store, dropper bottles and all. Certain specialty e-juice bottles look more like niche tabasco sauces.

Inside the glass display cases is the technology. It’s a lot like a cell phone store. The pens, vapes and cigs displayed on plastic stands are then sold in minimalist paper boxes. Some are made to look like an iPod Mini, some are made to look like a hand grenade.

But past the cashier is what most come for: the sampling counter. A tray of little honeycombs holds catalogs worth of juices, all held in their own little e-cig. Each is given a taped-on name tag to indicate its flavor.

E-juice’s synthetic nature allows for a variety of tastes, as wide as any candy aisle. One of the most popular flavors is named “Crunkleberry Bliss,” even though it’s just watermelon-raspberry.

Getting smoke out of the nipple-shaped mouthpiece things is simple: push a button and inhale. The vapor works efficiently, like it would be chemically impossible to push another Crunkleberry atom into your lungs. It’s not too far from getting the high fructose corn syrup juice out of a baby bottle pop.

People come for the products and stay for the lounge experience. Between purchases or during a test smoke, customers can sit on the lightly stained black leather couches and read back issues of Vapor Digest, if they feel so inclined. “Vaping: The Greatest American Tradition Since Rock-N-Roll” reads the Summer 2014 cover.

Against all odds, South Sound Vapor Lounge is kid-friendly. Next to Vapor Digest are a handful of children’s books and empty sheets of cartoon stickers. Moms bring their strollers in, rather than leave them in the car next to the Harleys and hot rods outside. Of course, no minor is allowed in without a paying customer.

Kitty corner from the register and tasting bench is the Builder’s Bar, the South Sound equivalent of a Genius Bar. The casual vaper is less likely to have his equipment needing intricate work, meaning the Builder’s Bench is home to the serious regulars.

“It’s like a local pub,” Larry said. “Just with no alcohol, no drugs, nothing of any question other than language. I’ve never had a place to sit down before and discuss why Marlboros are better than Camels, or why Pall Malls are different than Lucky Strikes.”

Without the bar scene, 18 to 20 year-olds may find themselves strapped for nightlife in Olympia. That’s what Larry Pierini wants South Sound Vapor Lounge to be there for. Somewhere to chat and curse with the community, just no alcohol or drugs.