Clearing the Smoke: Looking for Accountability at Shop Therapy


MOD BEHRENS

Since their Provincetown location opened in 1996, Shop Therapy has been no stranger to controversies in the press. The business, which has since expanded to three locations in Downtown Northampton, has a pretty long rap sheet over its 44 years. This list includes public outcries of obscenity around the original shop’s Bob Gasoi murals, multiple police raids between 1999 and 2003 for illegal paraphernalia and isobutyl nitrite (poppers) sales, and a few big arrests for owner and founder Ronny Hazel, the greatest being a two year house arrest sentence for tax evasion. This was a benefit to Hazel’s business—how could it not be for a store that has branded itself entirely on a commodified idea of sticking it to the man?

Shop Therapy is a “hippy chic” clothing store and “source of goods from the Far East” (these are both direct quotes from their website), but also a sex shop and head shop that has missed no chance to capitalize on an image of rebellion against our culture’s moralistic anti-drug ideology. In one article, Hazel described the store as once “the test case for drug paraphernalia laws” and jokes in another about how he’d never get a license for selling marijuana with his “background.” For years the Hazels have taken their maverick image to the bank, becoming a self-proclaimed “multi-million dollar enterprise” and successful wholesaler. However, recently the shop has had to contend with a new public concern over sales of items with Confederate and pro-police imagery, and unlike in past news stories that painted the business in a positive light, Hazel and his employees seem much less willing to talk.

Shop Therapy and it’s sister shops in Northampton, Penny Lane and the Vault vape shop, for those unfamiliar, sell stoner gear and music festival garb—and yes, a lot of that is the stuff that shows up on the “What You Shouldn’t Wear to Coachella This Year” listicles about cultural appropriation. It’s not the only head shop downtown, but certainly the flashiest. Since I’ve lived in Northampton, I’ve never given it much thought besides shared eye rolls with friends over their regular window displays of white mannequins in enormous native headdresses and displays of Buddhist and Hindu images marketed towards a primarily white customer base. But when images of Confederate flag designs and pro-law enforcement hats on their shelves began circling through prominent local Facebook groups and stories about uncomfortable and upsetting customer experiences began piling on, I took a closer look.

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September 16th, Jose Adastra entered Shop Therapy with his wife. He told me they went there pretty regularly, and were fans of the store. Adastra, who is Puerto Rican, had recently confronted a man wearing a confederate flag shirt in another shop downtown and told me it had been on his mind that white supremacy could exist in such a liberal area. “I looked at the walls at Shop Therapy and I was like, ‘please don’t let me find any white supremacist memorabilia, please,’” he told me. He did. “I found that old Lynyrd Skynyrd patch with a confederate flag background and I got mad.” He said his wife was the one who showed him the border patrol, law enforcement, and S.W.A.T. hats hanging on the wall. He was quick to tell me he understood that perhaps not everyone yet understood how the police can be viewed as a very real threat, despite daily stories of police brutality across the country, especially against people of color. “But don’t put those hats on, because minorities are going to be afraid of you,” he said.

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Adastra refers to himself as “white-passing” and acknowledged that unlike other members of his family, this has lent him certain privileges, one of which being that he’s never been to prison. But he still has fear, and took offense to these items being sold casually amidst Baja jackets and tapestries. He waited in line and approached the counter, asking to speak with a manager. The manager he spoke to has since been identified as Erica Cole, who has given many statements to press in the past including a call for an even stronger police presence downtown to purportedly protect local businesses. As of the time of publication of this article, Cole didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. “I said, ‘why are you selling these racist items?’ and she was like ‘what are you talking about?’” Adastra told me. He pointed out the Lynyrd Skynyrd patch with a confederate flag print, as well as the hats, and Cole asked him to explain how the items were racist. “Well, it’s a Confederate flag. The flag stands for the subjugation of minorities, and the border patrol is irrefutably racist: all they do is wait for people who are brown and ask them for their papers like we’re in Nazi Germany.” He repeated the basics of his response to me. “She got very mad and was like ‘you need to go or I’m going to call the police.’”

He was surprised and asked what he had done to warrant such an aggressive response, saying he simply wanted to know why they were selling these products. It’s worth mentioning that Jose Adastra is a very friendly and instantly welcoming man with a gentle tone. “And she was like, ‘don’t you dare call me a racist’. It was an irrational response.” He was shocked. He hadn’t made any threats or accusations of racism regarding Cole personally, and had no big plans other than to cease shopping at the store if these were values they supported. “I’m saying the Confederate flag is racist, and border patrol is racist, and she got mad and asked me to leave and said that if I didn’t she was going to call the cops. Again, for a second time. The whole time I was very calm and at the end I said, ‘you know what, call the police, I didn’t do anything wrong, I was going to leave anyways.” So he left, describing the whole situation to me as “weird and awkward.” Later that day, Adastra made a public post on Facebook, which was shared widely both across private and public profiles and large community-centered local groups and told of his experience. Almost immediately, more stories began appearing in the comments.

A few others (particularly people of color) described feeling as though they were being watched or followed while inside the store to the point that they felt uncomfortable enough to leave. One person commented that they entered the shop in a wheelchair and were told by an employee that they were being followed to make sure nothing got broken, before hearing a manager use an ableist slur to describe them as they exited the shop. Even Mayor Narkewicz gave his two cents in a single comment, saying he was unable to force change on a local business when it came to what imagery or messages they sold, but that he “certainly won’t” be spending his money there. One response to Narkewicz’s comment from Nkozi Cole (unrelated to Erica Cole) suggested the formation of another task force (like the one implemented earlier this year to target panhandlers) to work through issues of offensive material being sold in town: “Maybe form some kind of white supremacist honor code so any hate-speech promoting business owners have to pay their employees more to deal with that nonsense.” The comment did not receive a response.

Among the 64 comments (not including replies) were a few jokes and taunting promises to spend more money at Shop Therapy in support of Confederate items, but these were rare. Adastra brought this up without prompting. He was optimistic. “There’s only a couple [comments]. Only four or five. But they’re here, and I leave it up because they’re not popular, you know? If they share them, that’s kind of good because then we can see them and their community can see them. And even if there’s a couple white supremacists, I still have the faith that most communities and churches even… will frown upon it.”

Adastra spoke about the other stories which had come up in support for him—he’d been somewhat tracking the shares of his public post, which had reached over a hundred by the time we met. Even I had seen numerous personal friends share his story. I asked if he had seen the November 2017 Valley Advocate article where both owner Ronny Hazel and manager Erica Cole’s responded to the store’s third broken window. He chuckled slightly. “If they weren’t such dicks, their window wouldn’t be broken so much. I’m not gonna do it, but [could see why someone would]. Why should we tolerate racists? I don’t understand why we should. It’s like, if people don’t understand that they’re inciting violence yet, they are. They’re just inciting violence. I feel scared and threatened. I just want to be left alone, and I don’t know what they want. I feel like I do everything I can to get along with everyone and I don’t have a problem with anyone, especially based on their skin color. But whenever I see a Confederate flag or a Nazi flag, I’m like, ‘those people have a problem with me.’ And it’s scary. It’s like, if you guys grow to a certain amount then I’m going to have a problem.” The amount of solidarity he received in only a few days was striking. “I don’t want to make a scene, I don’t have the time for that. I’m also a little wary of the white supremacist attention locally, but like, that’s not acceptable. You can’t treat people like that, and then when I saw the other posts I was like, ‘they’ve been treating people like this for a long time.’” He told me he didn’t know what he’d done to merit Cole’s response. “I have trouble making eye contact with people, let alone raise my voice at them? That is unthinkable.”

One of the strongest voices in support of Jose Adastra has been Rae Maltz, who had their own experiences with the same Shop Therapy management two years ago around Halloween. We met downtown a couple days after I had interviewed Adastra and they told me me their story. “It was 2016, I was with two friends and we were walking past the shop and we saw that they had all these big dream catchers in the window. We were kind of just like ‘oh my god, this is so wrong.’” They told me one of the friends they were with had partial Native heritage, though they and their second friend did not. The dream catchers looked “mass-produced,” they said, and clearly not locally made. Maltz said that the three passed the shop and discussed their thoughts before deciding to speak to management about the items. They said that while they couldn’t remember the exact dates, this occurred “around the time when things at Standing Rock were really reaching some critical points, and there was a lot of violence there, a lot of police violence” and around Thanksgiving. It was an issue that was in the forefront of their consciousness as well as many others, they told me. Maltz was of course referring to the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline which began in early 2016 when approval was given for the construction of an oil pipeline which threatened to contaminate the primary water sources for the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas. These protests resulted in extreme police violence against indigenous people and their allies.

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The three friends returned to Shop Therapy soon after. They spoke to a man who Maltz couldn’t quite identify but said was the owner or “in the family” (it’s a family-run business, Ronny Hazel’s son Adam Hazel runs the Vault). They said that whoever they spoke to was “heavily involved” in the business. “We said ‘we see that you’re selling these dream catchers, this is harmful to the indigenous and native population for this reason, when you get these things from overseas it’s taking money away from native artists and it’s part of a very specific culture that a lot of people just like to use as degradation and it’s just degrading to the culture’.” (Note: if you are confused about why issue was taken with the sale of dream catchers, I recommend taking a moment to read this.) Maltz said that they were very polite, trying to have it be a “learning moment,” but said they were brushed off pretty quickly. “He didn’t seem like a very confrontational person. He was just like, ‘oh, they sell, whatever’ and I think he said something about how they get them from like, specific families in Nepal.” They explained that dream catchers were items with a specific cultural heritage based primarily in the West, which was being completely taken out of context. “[The dream catchers] are being sold for profits that don’t go back to that culture,” they said. “So no matter where you’re getting them, that’s a problem.”

This was not the first time I would hear about the “families in Nepal.” This is a big point of pride for Shop Therapy, and on their website it claims that Hazel’s “spiritual quest led him to exotic market centers in Nepal, Indonesia and India where his investments in manufacturing helped build factories and family businesses.” Another commenter backed up Maltz’s story, adding that she and others had tried to get the shop to stop selling native headdresses around Halloween in 2016, only to have a manager (identified as Erica Cole) attempt to excuse the items by saying they were fair trade from Indonesia. Warbonnets (the style of headdress sold by Shop Therapy at the time) are native to a handful of tribes of the Great Plains region, a little under 9,000 miles from Indonesia. Cole identified herself as the person who sets up the window displays at Shop Therapy, which have often included warbonnets. In a private message to the commenter which has since been publicly shared, she said that Shop Therapy was “a small business who has been traveling the globe for 35 years reaching out to small, family owned manufacturers in 8 different countries. We have been welcomed year after year to these peoples’ villages and homes to help develop something new for our customers as well as other small businesses. We ALWAYS have supported their communities and helped them to bring their sometimes quite rural homes on the map.” (Note: there have been a few stories of Shop Therapy management privately messaging people who have taken issue with the store publicly—a few people I spoke to declined to be interviewed directly out of fear of harassment.)

What I found strange in my research for this article is that no matter how many articles I’ve found about paraphernalia confiscations and Ronny Hazel’s sculpture garden, it’s been incredibly difficult to find any information on these families in the East. There’s no article that names them, and they are not named or shown in photos on the website. Most companies who have outreach programs and strong connections to helping families in other countries make that pretty central, but I couldn’t even find a single article about Hazel’s “altruistic” business dealings. The only mentions I’ve found of Nepal in profiles of him are that he retreated to the country for a couple weeks after his house arrest bracelet was removed after two years. Who are these families? How is Shop Therapy assisting them and “putting them on the map” when they’re not even mentioned by name? How much money are they receiving for their work? “It’s like, okay cool you know the families who are making them in Nepal or wherever but also what does that mean?” Maltz asked me. “Are there children making them in those families? Why are you going to Nepal? What are the regulations there? You know the family but that doesn’t mean it’s going to all be above the books.”

Maltz said the manager they spoke to was continually dismissive, saying the items sold despite some people taking issue with them. This sentiment was reflected in comments from Donovan Bartish, another manager at Shop Therapy and the only one to respond to Adastra’s post. In comments, he said the store made “so much money from the 8 highly limited run of headdresses” although he did not specify where they had been made. He contested statements that the items had been sold as “costumes” in response to the timing of the controversy being placed around Halloween. He neglected to say, however, what the intention behind them actually was. Bartish also cited his employees of color as proof that he was not racist—one of the employees did defend the shop on Facebook, saying that he had had success in helping get offensive items removed before, but as Adastra pointed out to me, this process is different when an employee raises a concern, as opposed to a local citizen. “You harass us by telling LIES, having multiple people call the store and harass us, having a reporter investigate us,” Bartish responded to the commenter who had spoken about warbonnets. “Thank God the reporter was a real journalist and saw your smear campaign for what it was.” As of the publication of this article, I have not been able to reach Donovan Bartish for comment. (I am not the reporter mentioned here.) Adastra was surprised at Bartish’s uninhibited replies, but like Maltz was particularly offended by his use of outdated language in a defensive comment: “You obviously don’t know the history of Shop Therapy has[sic] been hiring gays lesbians transgenders transvestites black and white[sic] since the 70s.”

“He’s under the impression that they’re at the forefront of this like, fight for civil rights for well, ‘quote unquote,’nothing I would ever say—‘tranvestites,’ ‘transgenders,’ ‘gays,’ ‘blacks and whites,’ come on man,” Adastra told me. “At that point I became a little more impatient and I was like, ‘you’re not qualified to speak to me about this.’” He sent Bartish a private message, saying he wanted to give an open offer to sit down and chat about what had happened and what could be done to remedy the situation and avoid future problems with customers. He got no response, but wasn’t sure if the message even reached Bartish through Facebook’s messenger system. Adastra knows Maltz and a number of the other commenters, and seconded their statement. “They talked about the headdresses and how that was offensive. They were made in Indonesia or China or something and they were selling them to white people and white people were wearing them to festivals and they were making money and Native Americans weren’t getting shit.”

Maltz told me that after their friend posted publicly online about their experiences trying to get dreamcatchers and warbonnets removed from the store, Cole began harassing the friend over Facebook messenger. These were the messages which eventually were shared publicly on Adastra’s post. In them, Cole says “As far as the headdresses are concerned, every one of them was handcrafted by an ADULT. We have dear friends in the Dakotas, Arizona, New Mexico and California who are FULL BLOODED NATIVE AMERICANS.” While this implies that the warbonnets were made by indigenous families, that implication contradicts what Maltz was told by a manager in the store, and is still the only mention I have seen of a connection to indigenous families at all. Of course, they remained unnamed and it is unclear what they supply the shop with, if anything at all, or what tribes these “dear friends” are native to. “We are not the ones bulldozing the sacred grounds out west, OUR GOVERNMENT IS DOING THAT,” Cole finished. After receiving a long and thoughtful response explaining the situation and why the items were offensive, she responded with: “You’re fucking with the wrong bull here. I can keep going. If you want to play this game, get in the ring. I’m there every day… EVERYONE IS A FUCKIN KEYBOARD WARRIOR. Go ahead and post, I’m not going anywhere.” Maltz described the interactions as “bizarre.”

“The post went around a little bit but died out,” they told me. “But that’s why when it happened again I was like oh my god. This has been an issue and I really want this to be addressed and I want these people held accountable because this has been happening for years.”

So, is Shop Therapy being accountable? When Jose Adastra and I met, he told me that the store had taken the hats and Lynyrd Skynyrd patch down. I’d seen the comment, hidden amidst dozens on his original post, from the Shop Therapy Northampton page. It was simple and easy to miss, just saying “These items have been removed from the store” with an emoji of a hand making a peace sign. Maltz and multiple others replied, asking if this meant the dreamcatchers and other indigenous knock-off items would also finally be removed, but in over three weeks, there has been no further response from the shop to those questions. I checked the Facebook page, looking for a public statement after people had left negative reviews and called in complaints to the store—with so many corporations and businesses facing controversies for cultural appropriation over the last few years, it’s common to see an apology after removal of items like these, but Shop Therapy didn’t seem to feel the need. As of the publication of this article, they still have not released any further statement on the matter.

Another public post from June 24th of this year was shared in the thread as well, this time about the Shop Therapy in Provincetown selling a variety of proud confederate, libertarian and pro-Trump bumper stickers which were much more explicit than anything that could be passed off as rock band merchandise. It included a photo taken by Joshua Grannell, shown below on the left. I also have included a photo on the right which was taken last year by a friend of mine at the Shop Therapy in Northampton. It seems as though this item was quietly removed from their shelves at some point in the past year.

 

 

Grannell’s post received a decent amount of attention in Provincetown months before Adastra’s in Northampton, and in the comments I found again, a short, single response from the Shop Therapy Provincetown Facebook page: “Thanks for the note. This merchandise has been removed.” The store declined to make any larger statement or respond to replies asking why the merchandise had been sold in the first place. Since the public outcry after Adastra’s post, the Shop Therapy Northampton Facebook page has removed their reviews section entirely and turned off the feature which allows users to directly message the page. It is unclear how many managers or employees have official access to edit and respond from the page, but the only “Team Member” listed is of course, Ronny Hazel, a man known for being unlike other business owners: a true hippie challenging the norm. I emailed Hazel on September 22nd through the contact email on Shop Therapy’s website. He replied three days later and was the only Shop Therapy employee to answer any of my inquiries. His email rambled and failed to answer any of my questions directly. “Racists?? White Supremacists?? I don’t even know how to respond … except to say such words are very painful to me,” he wrote. Hazel didn’t address whether or not Shop Therapy would make a statement or issue an apology regarding the items solds in its shops; he didn’t say who was in charge of purchasing such items; he didn’t address whether any profits were shared with people whose culture Shop Therapy is profiting off of; and lastly, he didn’t address how the employees should interact with customers in the light of Cole threatening to call the police on Adastra.

He did however point me in the direction of two articles that he said would help explain him. Both are primarily profiles on him and neither address a single one of the questions I emailed nor sheds light on how the company empowers “women’s groups in NEPAL and families AROUND the world,” which he claimed they would. I asked about this in a follow-up email, saying I would love to learn more about the work they do abroad, but as of the publication of this article, I have received no further communication from him.

I still have these questions. I still want to know how pro-police and confederate merchandise fits Hazel’s old school hippie and eastern aesthetics. I want to know about the families in Nepal, and how the company will move forward after these public concerns. So far, I have received radio silence, and the people who have been asking questions of Shop Therapy for years have too. The responses from management have existed in private Facebook messages which border intimidation, or absolute ignorance, in the face of conflict. There has been no answer to the question of why these items were chosen to sell, only a one or two sentence Facebook comment after large-scale controversy. And the dream catchers? They’re still on the shelves. “They didn’t say anything about the dream catchers,” Maltz said. “They just made that statement like, ‘we’ve taken down the items, peace, whatever’ and I commented being like, ‘what about the dream catchers’—I put ‘dream catchers’ in quotations because those aren’t real dream catchers —and no one said anything back to that. It drives me crazy when there’s no accountability and people get away with shit like this.” They told me they have strong feelings about the culture of downtown, having lived here for eighteen years, working retail for nearly ten, and watching the town change over time. “If a business is doing shitty things, I want to know, and I want them to have the resources to learn and change or I want them to be held accountable.”

Finally, even as Northampton’s Main Street Shop Therapy has taken a few items off its shelves, there has still been no answer as to why a man was threatened with a police call for calmly asking questions of a manager about their merchandise. “God forbid I was black, she would have probably called the cops right away,” Adastra said. “If I was black and she called the cops? She might as well have said ‘I’m gonna shoot you in the head’ if I was black.” He continued. “I don’t know what their goal is. It’s like they don’t want to make money.” He told me he gets scared sometimes about posting things so publicly like he did about his experiences at Shop Therapy, even as much as he wants change to happen. He told me he’s exhausted, it’s stressful. But, he said, he decided a long time ago that he’d “rather not be so passive.” “If some bastard decides he wants to take me away from my kids too soon, at least it’ll be for a good reason.”

Many still hold out hope for a stronger public response from Shop Therapy, a new mission to make customers feel safer in their downtown stores, or even just an accountable apology. We’re still waiting. If you have any information about Shop Therapy changing policy in light of these controversies, or about their connections abroad, please email us at theshoestringmag@gmail.com.

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Mod Behrens is a local organizer living in Northampton and writing about the opioid crisis and local business.

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