Walk into enough cannabis retail stores in Alaska and you’ll notice that a common denominator for many is to offer a relaxed, comfortable, high-end shopping environment that belies the classic stoner stereotypes.

Gone are the cluttered and dark atmospheres found in head shops in long ago days, with psychedelic posters, fake Persian carpets, poor lighting, and poorly organized and often cheap items for sale. Also fading into the past is the nondescript storefront approach taken by medical dispensaries that operated prior to recreational legalization, where customers had to go through a security check in an outer room, showing their ID and papers before being permitted to enter the dispensary itself.

Instead, Alaskans looking to make cannabis purchases are finding themselves in boutique stores with attractive entrances, roomy, well lit interiors, glass product display cases, merchandise tidily presented on shelves, and,

increasingly, couches and easy chairs that encourage customers to linger for a while and enjoy the entire experience of shopping rather than being rushed through to make way for the next person in line. And as often as not, there are pieces of Alaskana scattered about in the shops, reminding customers that cannabis retail stores are fast becoming parts of their communities, while also tying the businesses to Alaskan history.

This is quite deliberate, as Greg Alison, co-owner of GOOD Cannabis in Fairbanks explained. In his shop, customers encounter a large painting of Felix Pedro, who discovered gold in 1902 near the newly established outpost in Interior Alaska, helping Fairbanks thrive during an era when many Alaska boomtowns vanished almost as quickly as they appeared.

“Felix Pedro is the first entrepreneur of the Interior,” Allison said, explaining why he feels a connection to the pioneer prospector. “He was a risk taker. That’s what an entrepreneur does. Takes risks. And all of us in the cannabis industry are certainly huge risk takers.”

When Allison left his job with Explore Fairbanks, which promotes tourism in the Golden Heart City, he brought with him the idea that connecting GOOD to both the town’s past and present would be important for creating an interior layout that customers would feel welcomed into.

This is apparent as soon as one walks through the door. Along with the painting of Pedro that dominates one wall and was done by local tattoo artist Jay Fernandez, other Interior Alaska influences can be quickly spotted. A painting by Megan Perra of a caribou

smoking a joint hangs alongside the Pedro piece. Old mining equipment adorns the walls as well. Beautifully made glass and wood display cases, hand crafted by Michael Kiss Studio in British Columbia and reminiscent of those found in jewelry and precious metal shops, securely hold cannabis products for customers to take a closer look at. Shelves and other furnishings are made from Alaskan slab wood, including a beetle-killed spruce countertop.

“I think anybody that’s Alaskan is a fan of birch. Or spruce. Or Sitka spruce. Some kind of wood,” Allison said.

Giono Barrett, owner of Rainforest Farms in Juneau, chose a similar aesthetic. There, too, customers will find a natural wood countertop, in this case one hewn from Alaskan red cedar that was custom made by Aleph Designs, a fine woodworking company that employs sustainable practices when working with Tongass Rainforest timber.

For Barrett, this was part of a larger design scheme intended to let customers know that the dispensary is tied to the vibrant Southeast Alaska culture and lush ecosystem. “We are Rainforest Farms, so it was important to have a lot of plants and trees in there, to give you that feeling that you are in the rainforest. To celebrate that aspect of our community.”

Barrett said that before opening, he and his associates looked at cannabis stores around the country, as well as the long established cannabis cafes in Holland, for a sense of how they wanted Rainforest Farms to look and feel.

“We wanted to go with a look that resembled more of a coffeehouse,” Barrett explained, which led to the use of warm colors, wood accents, and white paint to help convey a bright and roomy place rather than the sort of sterile environment formerly found in the old medical dispensaries, which had to maintain very tight security. Barrett said he wants people to get away from the idea that cannabis is some sort of criminal thing, describing the old medical dispensaries as almost prison like.

It’s a thought Allison shares. “One of the things I do not like about our industry as a lot of businesses have transcribed it is, you go into a shop and there’s somebody behind a glass who takes your ID and looks at it and hands it back to you and then buzzes you in,” he said, explaining that while customers at GOOD are required to show identification by law, it’s not the first thing they hear when they step inside. “We’ll greet you with a smile. Just like a human should greet another human.”

Smiles are also what greet customers at the two Catalyst Cannabis Co. shops in Anchorage. Founder and CEO Will Schneider said. “When we look at our retail spaces we’re trying to do something not many people in Alaska or Anchorage focus on, which is a really high end retail experience.”

Catalyst incorporates Alaskan themes as well, including locally sourced wood and other items drawn from nearby. The two stores also work to fit in to their distinctive environments. Schneider explained that the Southside shop is in an upscale neighborhood where residents tend to be professionals and fairly affluent. High-end materials were used in building the retail space and adjacent lounge.

The newly opened outlet in Muldoon sits in a more diverse and demographically younger district in Alaska’s largest city. Here the atmosphere is more urban, with exposed metal, high ceilings, and a mural by Anchorage artist Rejoy Armamento.

“We really wanted to make it a little more urban, a little more of a hip hop flavor,” Schneider said. “Our inspirations for that were more warehousey, and skate shop feels, and higher end sneaker shops.”

The Catalyst shops have lounge areas where customers await their turn at the counter. Light instrumental reggae flows from the sound system in the Southside shop, while over in Muldoon, the sound is lounge beats and instrumental hip hop. At both outlets, they can relax on custom furniture from Muddy Anchor Iron and Timber Works.

Catalyst, Rainforest Farm and GOOD all offer brightly it, roomy spaces that allow customers to not just purchase their favorite cannabis products, but also encourage them to stay and look about. To that end, they do more than offer cannabis.

At GOOD, Allison said he wants people to feel time spent in the shop is time well invested, even if they aren’t there to make a purchase. Local artists display their work on the walls, and a percentage of all sales goes to the charity of the artist’s choice. GOOD has participated in First Friday events in the past, and while Covid put a hold on these, they will soon return, prompting art enthusiasts to stop in.

Rainforest Farms also hosts artists, and musicians as well. Again, the pandemic put a damper on this, but things are getting back to speed. At press time, Rainforest was finalizing plans for onsite consumption, and the location, which was previously a coffeehouse, will once again buzz with customers socializing, reading, and listening to music.

Both Catalyst shops are arranged to allow people in the lounges to watch the city go by as they await their turn at the counter. The objective for all three companies is to make the stores community gathering spots, not just cannabis retail stores. It’s a way to convey the message that cannabis, consumed responsibly, can be a normal part of life, and the shops a place for everyone to enjoy.

Catalyst’s Schneider is proud of how his two stores have turned out. Speaking for himself, but echoing invitations that GOOD’s Allison and Barrett at Rainforest Farms also extended, Schneider said, “I tell people, even if they don’t smoke weed, to come by the shop.”

 

David James is a freelance writer in Fairbanks. Comments about this story? Email editor@alaskacannabist.com.

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