The Austin Chronic: Mobile Head Shop the Glassmith Puts Down Roots

The Glassmith graduates to brick-and-mortar

Like all the Glassmith trailers, the new Airport Boulevard store has a glassblowing studio. Owner Billy Marsden at right, holding a torch (photo by Kevin Curtin)

The trailer is the cradle of big-city business dreams. We’ve seen it again and again in Austin with dinky little food trucks that become polished restaurant franchises. But what if your dream is a pipe trailer? Wait ... do pipe trailers exist?

They do. And Billy Marsden has turned a mobile head shop into three mobile head shops and just added a 24/7 brick-and-mortar version of his business. All of this sounds like I’m describing some crazy game of stoner Monopoly – and if it is, then Marsden is playing that game with balls.

Because the concept of the Glassmith is a pipe trailer with glassblowing ... which seems kind of insane: you know, working with molten glass goo in some park where people are eating gyros. But the shop’s been open for a decade and no one’s ever gotten their face burned off, so, I concede.

Marsden, a New Mexican with an inquisitive, stoney way of speaking, takes me back to the Glassmith’s origins:

“I’d been blowing glass for five years and I was struggling – just trying to get by and thinking, 'What can I do in Austin?’” he says. “I was like 'Well shit, let’s boost up this food trailer shit and bring in glassblowing.’ I looked all through the city [code] to see what kind of rules there were against it and, at the time, there was no mobile permit, except if you were a food truck. I also looked into the glassblowing thing pretty heavily and the answer wasn’t there. There wasn’t a yes, but there wasn’t a no.”

So in 2014, Marsden opened the first Glassmith location in an undeveloped lot with food trucks at 26th and Rio Grande in the heart of West Campus. It was humble, a big homemade box with sheet-metal walls and a large window full of bongs and pipes and smoke shop fare, but there was an ethos – to champion American glass – and a vibe that attracted people. The flagship store has evolved physically – it now has a second trailer and a deck with an awning – and also in terms of what it sells. The stylish disposable nicotine vapes that Gen Zers like have been huge, as have the trends of legal cannabis options, particularly THCA, which has come to represent the largest share of the Glassmith’s sales.

But the lane that Marsden saw promise in was not necessarily related to product, but placement. He realized that the key to the Glassmith’s success was walking traffic.

“West Campus is the best walking traffic in the city,” he says. “The next spot I got was Cesar Chavez and Chicon, and that’s a lot of walking traffic too. Then I got a trailer on East Sixth, and that’s all walking traffic. We want to be closer to the people who are walking by, almost like being in a mall.”

Marsden tells me this as we sit in the back of his newly opened Glassmith brick and mortar on Airport Boulevard – a street about which the words “walking traffic” have never been uttered.

He admits the store came to him out of necessity and a compulsion to not waste space. He needed a warehouse for his three trailer operations, but the property he found – right next to the Skylark Lounge at 2039 Airport – also had a storefront and the rent wasn’t that much more than what he’d have to pay for a stand-alone warehouse. So, without ever having the aspiration to open a traditional store, he opened a traditional store ... one that feels like a dream manifest.

There’s a front-facing glassblowing studio where you can watch artists make pipes like you’re at a zoo, while a branded vintage step van outside nods to the company’s origins. The roomy retail space is loaded with glass for all budgets; a well-curated wall of stoner snacks; a deep selection of papers, vapes, smoking accessories, whippits, and THC drinks, plus a THCA flower bar. There’s even a hidden door on the back wall that opens into a multimedia production suite and office. The extensive buildout allows a comfortable, inviting vibe while feeling in line with the unfancy Eastside vibe.

But, sitting there with him, I get the impression that Billy Marsden is the kind of person who stays at odds with himself as a way to think critically about what he’s doing and constantly refine his business. He’s proud of the new store, but – hilariously – he won’t rule out it being a bad idea.

“This is a deviation from the plan,” he says. “I’m curious about if this big idea will work, when I already knew the small idea works. I can see the future of the Eastside, but maybe instead of trying to spark this shit off I should just try to completely own West Campus.”

While playing devil’s advocate, he also paints himself as a reluctant “boss” who is probably unwise for trying to be a combination mentor, friend, and hopeful future business partner to all of his employees.

But in reality, the Glassmith staff are what justifies a risky “big idea” move like this. There’s an obvious buy-in among his dozens of employees – mostly college age – who seem like they’d run through walls to make the business successful. They’re not just retail workers but an in-house multimedia team, clocking in to work on whatever new concept their boss is pursuing: shooting creative product photography, recording episodes of The Glassmith Podcast, creating online content, or doing livestreams of glassblowers at work.

“I want someone who I hired from UT, whether or not they graduate, not to have to go out and enter the corporate world, but use their skills in their own way right here,” he explains. “I need to be able to grow fast enough for them to have a job to roll into.”

On the day we meet, Marsden is acting wounded because an employee made a sign for the outside of the store that lists the featured glassblowers, and they’ve left off a key name: Billy Marsden. He says the market for independently crafted glass pipes is becoming increasingly challenging with the cost benefits of selling made-in-China, mass- produced bongs and bowls, but he believes hand-blown glass is an important part of the larger culture that can’t be forgotten.

“I want to give glassblowing a larger recognition and for this to be a place for artists to come and create and grow,” he says when asked about Glassmith’s legacy. “I also want to push the envelope of what people are allowed to buy legally and I’m ready to be on the edge of those two things.”

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