Exceptional Retailer 41: Flashbacks




With Flashbacks smoke shop in Florida, two retirees created their second careers. Their approach is old-school, staying away from trends and sticking to tradition. Seventeen years later, they’re still going strong.

The story of the Flashbacks smoke shop in Boynton Beach, Fla., goes like this: Meryl and Don Work had retired, which is usually when a couple travels, indulges in their favorite things and sleeps in whenever they want. But something different happened in their case.

“My husband got bored,” says Meryl Work, which perhaps isn’t too surprising since “work” is right there in their last name.

So they opened Flashbacks. It was a new type of venture for them. Business wasn’t new, but the smoking business was. Don had owned a successful adult store previously. Meryl used to work at her family’s beauty salon. But a smoke shop? This was different. Nonetheless, they jumped in head first, eager to learn the industry. That was 1998.

“Here we are, 17 years later,” Meryl says.

In those 17 years Flashbacks has carved out a nice niche for itself, a stable of loyal customers and a stellar reputation in the industry. And everything they’ve done, they’ve done their way, decidedly.

Flashbacks isn’t the shop to jump on the latest trend or re-invent itself at every turn. It’s not trying to be a gallery or a vape shop. Heck, the shop has had the same cash register since it opened. It’s not on social media. Meryl keeps all the inventory by hand, in a notebook.

“We try to stay low-key,” she says.

To put it another way: They’re old school. And proudly so. Flashbacks is a traditional smoke shop, where you can find high-quality American glass, pipes in various shapes and prices ranges, plus products like incense (they stock a lot of Wild Berry), ashtrays, tie-dye and T-shirts featuring the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

“We’re not trying to make a killing,” Meryl says. “We’re a neighborhood store. We deal with a lot of locals. People come here for a reason. We get an older crowd and people like us because we’re a little older. They don’t feel like idiots when they talk to us.”

Back in the day, Flashbacks advertised on MTV and other cable TV stations. Today, mostly relies on reputation and word-of-mouth.

“We’re happy with what we have,” Meryl says. “I have friends with shops and they’re always running these humongous sales. I’m just not into that anymore. I’m happy with what I got. I don’t have any kids I have to put through college. It’s just the two of us.”

That’s not hyperbole either. In the store, it’s just her and her husband. (Well, their dog Teddy, the shop mascot, is there too.) They split the days in half and work six days out of the week. So much for retirement, eh?

“We’ve had one employee in 17 years,” Meryl says. “And she lasted about two weeks.”

When they opened Flashbacks, the Works sensed opportunity. They had a few contacts in the smoking industry, since it and the adult world are often intertwined.

“We just needed something,” Meryl says. “At that time, there weren’t that many stores around. Now they’re everywhere.”

As they got deeper into the smoke-shop scene, Meryl took the lead when it came to products. She goes to the trade shows, scours them for cool products, things that catch her eye and that her customers will like. She goes to Champs and the standard smoke-shop trade shows, but also gift and clothing trade shows.

“People ask me, ‘How come you come to every show?’ ” Meryl says. “I want to make sure I have the best products out there.”

When we’re talking about glass, Flashbacks proudly sticks to American-made items.

“I won’t go import,” she says, “because it goes against my standards. We’re still carrying all-American glass, trying not to buy anything from outside the country if we don’t have to.”

She also enjoys stocking the novelty items inside Flashbacks that bring in a different clientele.

“I have people that don’t look at that side of the store,” Meryl says. “I have people that don’t look at the glass side of the store. I have people who bring their kids and shop for clothes and incense.”

It all works for the Works. But the next question is: For how much longer?

Meryl turns 63 this month. Don will be 76 next month. They’ve got to be thinking about retirement again, right? For real this time?

“A couple more years,” Meryl says. “People tell me, ‘If you’re ever going to sell, let me know.’ For right now, it’s good. It keeps us occupied and busy and I enjoy stocking the store.”


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