Ryan Grizzell, a 41-year-old Army veteran, is blowing a glass pipe, his blue eyes hidden behind protective eyewear as a soft, warm glow from a flame reflects on his face. Various glass rods are strewn about Shockers Smoke Shop, scattered among two kilns, a blowtorch, and a foot pedal. The small workstation sits by a window looking out on Harford Road; the smoke shop is nestled between an African hair-braiding salon and a business whose sign is hardly decipherable but reads something about garage-door services. The hands of the clock on the wall tick and change, but each of the 12 numbers is the same-4:20.
When a customer stops to stare through the window at the bearded, ponytail-sporting glassblower, Grizzell hardly notices. After 15 years of practice, he says an audience doesn't shake him.
Glassblowing wasn't always a passion. Grizzell grew up in Laramie, Wyo., and joined the Army right out of high school, working as an MP in Louisiana and Alaska. Some of his Army buddies were from Baltimore, so when his time was up, he decided to check it out.
"I bounced around a little bit, trying to figure it all out. Coming to the big city of Baltimore was a culture shock," Grizzell says. During his bouncing around, Grizzell did everything from peddling cordless phones and frozen meat out of the back of trucks to selling headstones and coffins for a local funeral business. But eventually he found his way to the old art of glassblowing.
"I was living up in Pennsylvania and hanging out at my cousin's tattoo shop and ran into some kids who were making and selling some pipes and thought, Wow, this is cool. I think I can do this." Grizzell says.
At the time, he had never seen any pipes that someone had actually hand-blown. When he started asking around about where he could go to get a pipe, everyone told him the same thing: You've got to go to Baltimore.
The kids from his cousin's tattoo shop "showed me some quick stuff, I bought their torch off of them, and I just started practicing," Grizzell says. "I ended up going to a Phish concert to sell a whole bunch of glass for the first time. It was like, pay my rent or go to the show and make money."
Grizzell made about 30 glass pieces and took them to the two-day concert in New York and sold them all, raking in about $700 to $800 for the weekend-far more than he was making waiting tables at the truck-stop diner where he was working. Soon he quit his job at the diner to pursue glassblowing.
Six months after giving him his first lesson, the people who had taught Grizzell the basics came back wanting to learn from him. At that point, he decided he'd sell his glass wherever he could, whether it was at a nearby festival or out of his pocket in exchange for beer at a bar. Every couple weeks, he'd bring some glass down from Pennsylvania to Baltimore, where he'd try to sell his pipes to the few head shops in the area at the time.
On one of his scheduled visits, he hung out all day in a shop waiting for the owners to show up and buy glass from him. They never came, and another shop offered to buy his glass for 20 percent less. He sold to them. You guys are killing me! Grizzell thought. I'll just open my own store then.
He decided to take all the money he had, plus some he had borrowed from his mother, to open the doors of his shop. He wasn't sure the venture would be successful, but he was certain of one thing: It was going to shock everyone in the area. So he named it Shockers.
Originally located across the street from its current location, Shockers Smoke Shop opened in 1999 and moved to its current location in 2002. Unlike most head shops in the Baltimore area, the store prides itself on making all of the pieces in house or buying them from one of a half-dozen glass artists Grizzell trusts or has worked with in the past.
"Other glassblowers say we can be one of the pickiest shops to sell to, but they like how we explain things to people and let them know what they're getting," Grizzell says.
Initially, Grizzell lived upstairs from the shop and says he could barely put two pieces of glass together. Since he couldn't afford to buy shelves or put anything on the walls, the store was fairly desolate, with only a few items for sale inside of cabinets.
Now the space is filled with the odor of fresh, clean heat; bright green and yellow walls and brick interior are decorated with humorous bumper stickers; cabinets and shelves are full of shining, one-of-a-kind hand-blown glass accessories such as hand pipes, Sherlocks, water pipes, bubblers, sidecars, and mini-rigs, ranging in price from $20 to more than $700. Behind the counter, an employee's pit bull, Cylas, keeps a close watch on all the action.
It's all legal, of course. "Nothing is paraphernalia until it's used for something illegal," Grizzell says. "Everything we sell is for tobacco use. That's just the way it is."
While running the shop, Grizzell used his G.I. bill money to go back to school, graduating in 2006 from Essex Community College, where he focused on general studies and art. Three years ago, he met a ballet dance teacher named Iris, and they got married last year. Now, he hopes to open up a second location or a space where he can give glassblowing lessons and work closely with other artists to learn more and to constantly improve his skill and technique.
But for now, he's happy at his kilns on Harford Road. He fires up the blue torch with a hiss and swirls a hot, glittering green rod of borosilicate glass onto a piece he has just blown, keeping his wrists in constant motion to ensure the glass maintains its form in a fight against gravity.