Instead of smoking a cigarette, Art Boivin, Jr. bellied up to a downtown “flavor bar” and took a drag of Neon Cloud on his Kanger eVod VV.
“It tastes like heaven,” declared Boivin.
Boivin (pictured) is one of the regulars at White Buffalo Vapors at 748 Chapel St., the city’s first and only e-cigarette lounge.
The shop has been quietly building a customer base for several months at its digs across from 360 State St. and the Elm City Market. By summer’s end, the store will expand to sell espresso and tea and to serve as a venue for open-mic poetry and music, according to Sammy Chamino.
Chamino is one of three 20-somethings who opened the business together in March, getting in on a craze that is sweeping the nation. The owners—Chamino, Sasha Zabar and Max Young—are best friends and e-cigarette enthusiasts who have used vaping, or smoking e-cigarettes, as a means of quitting smoking.
Now they’re hoping to ride the vaping mania along a historic stretch of lower Chapel Street that has shown signs of reviving while also facing its share of vacant buildings and quality-of-life problems.
Monday evening found the White Buffalo trio working behind the “flavor bar,” serving customers free samples of “juice.”
Boivin sat down at the bar, which has a “no smoking” sign. He ordered a combo he calls “Neon Cloud”—a mix of Neon Iguana and Crimson Cloud, two house-made flavors of fruity “juice.” The juice is a mix of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, flavoring, water and nicotine that White Buffalo Vapors mixes in a kitchen space near Mechanic Street. Boivin filled his battery-powered e-cigarette with Neon Cloud and pressed a button to light up.
He inhaled a vapor containing 1.8 percent, or 18 milligrams per milliliter, of nicotine. He said his goal is to cut down to zero.
Boivin, like many customers entering the threshold of the “vapothecary,” is trying to quit smoking cigarettes. A friend turned him on to vaping, or inhaling nicotine in a vapor instead of as smoke. This way, he can control the amount of nicotine per puff—and eventually cut down to nicotine-free juice.
Boivin, who’s 39, of Watertown, smoked for 20 years. He said he has basically quit smoking—as long as his e-cig is charged up and he doesn’t run out of juice. He motioned to a drawstring backpack, which he said was full of juice vials he bought at White Buffalo Vapors. He said he visits the lounge once or twice every day.
Boivin showed up at the shop Monday with a friend, Giovanni Zurlo.
Zurlo, who smoked for 20 years, said he tried all sorts of ways to quit: patches, gums, “hitting myself in the head.” Now Zurlo has gone two months without lighting a cigarette. Instead, he picked up his double-coiled e-cigarette and took a puff of Carrie, one of the flavors White Buffalo Vapors makes in-house. (It’s named after Young’s mom.) The dosage of nicotine was low—just 0.6 percent. It tasted like kiwi and blueberry, he said.
Those types of fruity flavors have prompted warnings from U.S. Sen. Dick Blumenthal and others about the dangers of marketing nicotine to kids. As it stands, e-cigarettes are unregulated.
Chamino, a self-described “bleeding-heart liberal,” said he supports regulating the industry. He said he has banned e-cigarette sales to minors in his store ahead of a federal movement to do so.
But he said he does not agree with critics who couch vaping as unsafe. It’s much better for you than traditional smoking, he argued, because there’s no combustion and no tar.
Chamino and Zabar said they both used to smoke. They were healthy guys, they said, except for the smoking habit. Zabar said he started to “feel dirty” from smoking. His hands smelled; his girlfriend urged him to stop. Six months ago, he did—by sucking in vapor in flavors like Nectar by Adam Bomb and Cloud Science Alpha by Big Teleos.
Chamino, who’s 26, grew up in New Jersey along with Young. Chamino said he moved to New Haven to live with some friends. He met Zabar in a political science class at Southern Connecticut State University; Zabar played Mitt Romney, and Chamino played Obama, in a mock debate. Chamino then recruited Young to move to New Haven and live here.
Young (pictured), who was deep into vaping before his friends, came up with the idea to open an e-cigarette store and lounge. Vapothecaries were exploding across the country, but not in New Haven. They found a vacant storefront across from the 360 State apartment tower, in a building owned by Chris Nicotra’s Olympia Properties. The storefront used to house the Las Vegas cell phone shop. It had been vacant for six months when the White Buffalo moved in.
The trio replaced the floor with wood and exposed the brick walls. They opened in mid-March with subtle signage that is most visible to people waiting right outside the door for the public bus. The store serves a mix of customers who reflect the range of people getting into e-cigarettes. Some enter in search of a $50 starter kit to help them kick the smoking habit. Others are hobbyists looking to scoop up a $250 Hana Modz e-cigarette device with a 30-watt chip, and load in gothic-imaged flavors like Suicide Bunny’s Mother’s Milk, which tastes like strawberry custard.
The store sits on a block of Chapel that represents its own mix of discount and gourmet. On one side of the street lie the organic fruits of the Elm City Market and vintage dresses at the English Market. On the other side, where White Buffalo roams, a Dollar Tree is moving into a long-vacant commercial space.
Chamino said he has been trying to get the city to power-wash the sidewalk on his side of the street so it looks more appealing. The bus stop right outside the shop has been a mixed blessing, Zabar (pictured) said: It has brought both down-and-out loiterers and valued customers.
This summer, Chamino and his partners plan to tear down the shop’s drop-ceiling and finish renovating the back half of the store. They plan to start serving espresso and tea, start up open mic nights and movie nights, and open up a back patio for customers.
“We want to have a community space,” Chamino said.
He envisions the store as “the healthy alternative to the Owl Shop,” the popular cigar-and-live-music joint on College Street: instead of cigars, e-cigs. Instead of alcohol, coffee and tea.
If the plan goes well, who knows, the White Buffalo may expand beyond New Haven.