Exceptional Retailer 64: Just Blaze



Just Blaze smoke shop in Phoenix is the result of two friends’ high-school dream coming to life after one of them was tragically shot and killed. Today, it’s a thriving ‘hip-hop graffiti smoke shop’

The story of Just Blaze smoke shop in Phoenix isn’t like many others. It’s a story of big dreams and horrible tragedy. But it’s also a story of one man finding out how precious life is and then realizing his full potential.

Ernie Peraza was just 20 years old when he started his business, but he’ll tell you it had been sitting in his brain for much longer. He and his good friend Joel dreamed of a store that catered to people like them when they were in high school. They liked smoking and hip-hop, but what they really loved was graffiti and they spent a lot of time looking for spray paint and accessories that were hard to find in Phoenix. Instead, they thought, why not open their own store?

“It was something that we thought would be cool,” Peraza says. “We wanted these types of items available to us. Nobody had ‘em. We had to order them from various websites.”

Just Blaze, they wanted to call it. Fast forward a few years later and one day would radically change everything. Joel was shot in a drive-by and killed. Ernie was standing next to him.

“He was right in front of me when it happened,” Peraza says. “Seeing the sudden impact of life-changing events really opened my eyes. Anything can change in a blink of an eye.”

He made a decision not long after — he was going to open the business that he and Joel dreamed about.

“That’s the only thing that made sense to me,” Peraza says.

Problem was, he didn’t know anything about how to start his own business. So he leaned on some family members and friends. He learned what he could. It took some time, but soon he figured things out.

“A lot of people underestimate the work it takes to have a retail business,” Peraza says. “Especially in this time with the competition online.”

He’s 32 now, a self-made business owner whose shop has been open for 12 years. It’s changed and evolved over the years, but it’s always been 100 percent true to what he and Joel dreamed about.

“It’s a hip-hop graffiti smoke shop,” Peraza says.

Walking around the shop, you’ll notice that’s exactly what it is. There are big walls of glass pipes and big walls of spray paint cans. There’s hip-hop clothing brands like Seventh Letter and Tribal. There are murals and graffiti-style art pieces.

Most striking perhaps is how colorful everything is — like a spray-painted train car has come to life and turned into a vibrant shop.

Over time, the smoke shop part of the business has taken on a bigger life. Peraza learned the profit margins are bigger on glass — and so is the demand. And he learned in recent years there’s just as much demand for vaporizers, e-nails and all sorts of portable smoking accessories.

But he never abandoned the graffiti aspects that are Just Blaze’s foundation. The spray paint cans are still there and are a big part of the shop’s aesthetic — there are thousands of them in the shop. Peraza admits they’re not his biggest money maker, but Just Blaze wouldn’t be the same without them.

“I’ve kept it real to what we like,” he says. “I spray paint still to this day.”

One element that’s particularly fresh: Just Blaze has an art gallery in the back, where anybody in the community can display their artwork.

“The shop is about being creative,” Peraza says, “about being innovative and trying to express yourself through any kind of way you can.”

Another part of Just Blaze’s appeal is playing up the exclusive elements. That includes carrying limited-edition collabo pieces — or things like Seedless’ Rick & Morty line.

“I want to keep it artsy, limited, special,” Peraza says.

Those type of things always brings people, which means Just Blaze gets more foot traffic. To some people, it’s an experience just to visit the store. People visit from across the state or even further when you consider seasonal snowbirds who live in Arizona in the winter.

“It’s become more of an attraction,” Peraza says. “A whole family will come in and spend 45 minutes in the shop, just walking around and checking things out.”

It’s gotta be nice, right? To know that the vision he had with his high-school buddy has become a successful business. And even though Joel isn’t around to see it, he’s still the inspiration all these years later.

“It’s way beyond what we ever ever ever could have imagined,” Peraza says.

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