Sean Kirk is not Jewish, but he has a passion for the Middle East. He’s throwing that passion into his new local shop, The Bamboo Eater, incorporating the ties he sees between hookah and the Jewish community.
Sean and his friend Bryan Hadadd own and operate the store on Rhode Island Ave., which opened this summer.
Sean, a university alumnus, studied business and government and politics, with a focus on Middle East politics. He said it was difficult to get a job in the field of political policy in the Middle East because he is an “outsider” – not Jewish, Palestinian nor Israeli. After traveling to different universities along the East Coast, Kirk said he noticed a hole in the shops in the area. While there were tobacco stores along many campuses’ “Main Streets,” there are very few venues in this city, he said.
Tayla Feldblum, a senior kinesiology major, said she heard about The Bamboo Eater from friends who knew Sean and Bryan.
“It’s cool when graduates open shops near the campus because they tend to be more in sync with what students are looking for,” Talya said.
Sean said he and Bryan first spoke about the idea nearly three years ago, though they began to look at the costs and potential revenue two years ago. Sean said the city was incredibly helpful with the planning process, and the most difficult task was finding a property to rent.
Sean acknowledged that starting the business could be “a long, drawn out process,” especially because he was not involved in any of this university’s entrepreneurship programs.
He said he had help from the county, which has a system to help startup businesses get on their feet.
While some stores in Washington, D.C. might have a large stock of cigars and expensive inventory, Sean said he had to be sure The Bamboo Eater’s stock was affordable and appealing to both college students and the rest of the city’s community. “CP is a big city, and the university is only part of it,” Sean said, adding that the store has not only tobacco and products of the like, but also apparel.
Talya said the store’s decorations, such as hooks of funky jewelry, incense and a rack of tie-dyed T-shirts, added to the store’s appeal.
“The way everything is set up creates a nice atmosphere,” Feldblum said. She added she likes that the store’s merchandise expands and that prices are kept low. The store has also run into controversy over some of its alleged inventory. Customers, like Talya, acknowledged being aware of the issue. Because of its sensitivity, Sean declined to comment.
For the Jewish community, Sean said there is a particular draw he sees for them at The Bamboo Eater: shisha.
Shisha is a form of tobacco smoked through hookah and popular in Israel, according to the owner.
Sean called shisha “very traditional” in the Middle East, and a student who wished to be named cited its popularity among students who take time off – often called the “gap year” – between high school and college to travel and study in Israel at a university.
While the student did not do a “gap year,” he lived in Israel for a semester during high school. Sean said many students buy their first hookah set while studying in the Middle East.
“I enjoy it not really for the tobacco or anything related to that,” the student said. “But because it’s a fun thing to do spending time with people sitting in a circle and passing around a hookah and having conversation.”
However, Talya said she did not see any particular relation between the lifestyle and inventory at The Bamboo Eater and the Jewish community. She added that hookah is a good social activity that some Jewish groups include in their events, such as in the Sukkah at Sukkot.
Most agree that hookah tends to be a social activity.
“It’s kind of rare that people would sit there by themselves smoking hookah, but I do know people who have gotten into a habit of smoking it every other night while studying in their apartments,” the student said. “It’s not treated like cigarettes or cigars, in that you don’t do it on your own.”