"I'd like to make it like Starbucks," says Talia Eisenberg, standing on the back patio of her new Manhattan bar dedicated solely to electronic cigarettes.
The bar, the Henley Vaporium, is the latest manifestation of the emerging e-cigarette trend. A 2,700-square-foot space nestled on the border of NoLita and SoHo, among pop-up art galleries and boutique clothiers, the Vaporium caters not only to e-cig users — "vapers" — but also to hardcore smokers looking for a healthy way out and casual curiosos eager to taste test vaporized gummy bears.
Electronic cigarettes are most commonly used as a substitute for the real thing, a tool for smokers to wean themselves off the traditional variety while still getting a nicotine fix. (There is a robust, ongoing debate in the medical community about the health benefits of e-cigs, though the consensus so far is that they're far better for you than regular cigarettes.) Yet as with any intoxicant, there's an entire community of devotees with a science fiction lexicon all their own — "e-juices," "Mods," "vapes," and "mAhs," or milli-amp-hours, to name a few.
"All different e-liquids have a different sweet spot where the temperature where it's vaped at, it tastes better," says Ed Beauvais, a 42-year-old architect, after explaining the intricacies of his USB-rechargeable, variable-voltage, 2,600 mAh Mod — a fancy, rectangular smoking device that lets a user adjust the vaping temp to his liking. "Everybody's taste is different. Everybody has a different place where they like to vape."
A former smoker, Eisenberg used early electronic cigarette models to kick the habit. But the proto-devices were long, clunky, and "didn't have the throat hit of a real cigarette," leading her to found Henley two years ago as a purveyor of more refined devices and, now, proprietary e-juice flavors. The Vaporium is her first brick-and-mortar extension of the brand, one she hopes will steer others into a healthier, smoke-free lifestyle.
Talia Eisenberg (center) enjoys a vape at the bar. (Jon Terbush)
There are 44 million smokers in the U.S. dragging some 7,000 chemicals from each cigarette, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those smokers, an estimated one in five have tried e-cigarettes.
Eisenberg's primary goal is to up that number, helping people quit smoking and generally live healthier lives. To that end, the Vaporium also serves cold-press juices, gluten-free cupcakes, and a fully vegan menu with items like kale salad. (Though there is no kale salad e-juice.)
The bar is more than that, though. In addition to luring people away from traditional cigarettes, it seeks to erase the e-cig's geek stigma and turn the product into a trendy oral accessory — think of it as a healthy, pocket-sized hookah bar.
The Vaporium, Eisenberg hopes, will "create a whole unique experience" around something that, admittedly, is "basically water vapor" with artificial flavors. I tried a Blue Raz Cotton Candy e-juice, which tasted, more or less, like a warm, airy freeze pop.
It's thus "forward-thinking" while also "Willy Wonka-like," she says.
There are no rivers of chocolate at the Vaporium, nor any alcohol, for that matter — booze apparently "doesn't fit with the concept." Still, the bar has a whimsical air to it, from the Cardinal red floor and dodecahedron disco balls, to the mismatched vintage furniture of landfill-bound items reclaimed by a Brooklyn shop specializing in "art, design, commerce, and environmentalism." Then there are the attendant vapology experts, called Vapologists.
Michael, a Vapologist on hand for the Vaporium's opening night gala Thursday, says he's been vaping for two months now. In a white lab coat and backwards snapback hat, Michael explains how he guides patrons through the flavor and device pairings, and handles any other customer service needs they may have.
"It's product knowledge," he says, "knowing how much of what flavor to vape."
Like Eisenberg, he says vaping helped him dump cigarettes. Though less effusive about the vaping lifestyle, he, too, sees the Vaporium as a place where people with a common interest can "come lounge and hang and just kick it."
"We want to show people this is cool," he says.
While there are similar bars elsewhere around the country — a Washington shop also uses the Vaporium moniker, and several people I spoke with say vaping nightlife is big in California — the Henley Vaporium is New York City's first.
"We're the hookah bar of the now," Eisenberg says.
The Vaporium sells everything a vaper could want, including all manner of e-cigs, eGos, Mods, clearomizers, and atomizers. They offer refill cartridges at varying nicotine strengths, from 0-24mg, at between $10 and $15 a pop.
Then there's the galaxy of flavors, from the expected (cherry, watermelon, vanilla) to the absurd (Jamaican Me Crazy, Nutty Buddy, Happy Ending) all the way to the wonderfully abstruse (Rebel, Sublime, Mr. Miyagi.)
Back on the patio, Adam Pickman sits puffing Hapaya — papaya with hibiscus undertones, the "Nectar of the Gods" — from a silver Mod thick as a Mag-Lite.
"There's another level out there," he says, comparing his industrial device to the slim dog whistle I've been given. "It's more for the connoisseur."
Pickman is the founder of Clevervape, an e-juice company he started about four months ago. A one-year vaper and former smoker, he likens e-cigarettes to any other ritualistic relaxant.
"It's a release — a nice cup of coffee or a good vape," he says.
Beauvais (at right) agrees that the act itself is soothing — "I like the manipulation of smoke, the vapor coming out of my mouth" — and says it's no different from any other vice, albeit perhaps a healthier one.
"People either consciously or subconsciously realize they don't get everything they want in life," he says. "Having something they can get instant gratification from is necessary to satisfy that part of their lives."
As for Eisenberg, she maintains the Vaporium is primarily about health. Making vaping cool is an added bonus, she says, one that will only aid the first goal by "making it enjoyable to be healthy."
"We have 30-year smokers who have switched over and are suddenly running again," she says. "I feel like I'm doing something good for the world when that happens."