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Toledo Hookah Culture

Published: Monday, February 28, 2011

Updated: Monday, February 28, 2011 12:02

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Kevin Sohnly / IC

Exhaling smoke at Maxwells.

Kevin Sohnly / IC

Exhaling smoke at Maxwells.

Hookah has easily become one of the most well-known pastimes associated with socialization.

Sitting at a table, in a lounge or on the floor with nothing between you and your friends but an exotic-looking smoke contraption makes shooting the breeze a bit more intimate than an expensive night out to dinner or the regular bar-centered group activity.

Hookah bars and lounges embrace this intimacy, attempting to create a hangout geared toward casual conversation surrounded by less-than-suffocating flavored smoke.

Hookah, first smoked in India, is a water pipe that filters tobacco treated with flavoring through cooled water. The resulting smoke is less harsh on the throat of the smoker than a cigarette and is meant to be tasted and exhaled, much like cigar smoke.

Hookah culture exists around the world, primarily in the Middle East, Central Asia and Northern Africa. Today though, loyal hookah smokers can find lounges in nearly every major city from Melbourne to Anchorage.

While hookah culture in Toledo is just a fraction of what it is in larger cities, there is still a market here for that ever-popular tobacco product. Many of Toledo's Middle Eastern immigrants have brought the market here from their homes in Lebanon, Egypt and elsewhere.

Sam, who wished for his last name to be left out of the article, is in hookah retail at the local restaurant and hookah hotspot, The Oasis.

Sam has been involved in creating and marketing hookah flavoring for about two years, and in that time at The Oasis, he has come to see "the art of it."

While he said that hookah is growing across the country, he has failed to see much of an increase in hookah sales in the Toledo area in recent years. He has found the hookah hobby to be "more popular down south."

In addition, Sam noted that hookah usage, for the most part, has remained constant. To him, it appears that hookah business has not increased, particularly "when it's cold and business is slow."

Ashley Johnson, a sophomore majoring in psychology, is a hostess and waitress at The Oasis.

She is accustomed to the demographic of mostly college students who come through the doors to take advantage of the hookah bar, as well as customers in their late 20's.

Hookah shops have been appearing in college towns and around universities for several years, and the popularity amongst students have shifted the target market.

New flavoring for hookah tobacco include "Tutti Frutti" and mint chocolate chip, though most lounges carry traditional seasonings such as rose and grape.

The intrigue for all age groups seems to be fairly similar. Johnson said that the draw for most customers when they come to The Oasis to smoke is "being here with their friends, but also the flavors [that are offered]."

"We have a ton of flavors," she said.

Since the customers who frequent The Oasis are simply looking for a place to hang out, Johnson has found that the people she waits on tend to be "pretty friendly."

Madison Roze, a freshman majoring in visual art, is also well-versed in hookah knowledge.

Roze at one time owned three hookahs herself and has also experienced hookah culture in New York while she lived there.

"I like hookah because it's very social," she said. "Everyone is real chill when they're in a hookah circle."

Roze finds that social interactions are heightened when people are smoking hookah together.

"It opens everybody up to talk to each other, but not like being drunk does. That's sloppy," she said.

While Roze enjoys hookah lounges with cushions and an authentic atmosphere, she finds most hookah spots in Toledo are not up to par. To her, a traditional environment is far more preferable than a spot chock-full of "trendy college kids."

Roze has also found that folks in New York tend to smoke hookah as a social event, while in smaller cities it is simply looked upon as "something novel to do."

In July, a stabbing took place near well-known hookah spot, Maxwell's Brew on Bancroft Road next to UT's campus. According to Maxwell's, business was affected "for the first few weeks, but not now."

Compared to last year, their business has been better.

"We tried to explain it's going to happen everywhere," said Maxwell's. "We've brought more security."

Meanwhile, Sukit, the newest hookah go-to in town, has been increasing their business steadily.

According to Sukit, their sales are "turning upward," and January's business increased 63 percent over December. The same is predicted for February.

There hasn't been a largely visible amount of growing or shrinking in hookah culture in Toledo, but that's not to say it isn't popular, particularly among college students. With the opening of more hookah bars and lounges, however, the hookah scene could perhaps begin making a larger impact on the local community for both business and entertainment in the near and distant future.

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