WILKES-BARRE — Despite an evolving downtown, Utopia Glass Shop has remained a staple in the local small-business economy. Enduring changes in location and ownership, the glass shop never lost its sense of community while maintaining its place in a niche industry.
The shop, which specializes in glass pipes and smoking accessories, is located at the corner of South Main and Northampton streets and will celebrate its 20th anniversary on Friday, April 20.
Robert Maculloch, the current owner of Utopia, said his journey with the store began around 10 years ago.
“Probably 10 years ago I came to the shop,” Maculloch said.
At the time, Utopia was still at its old location farther south on South Main Street. He said the store was one of the only places to purchase work by local glass blowers and see live glass-blowing.
“(The shop) grew very popular; they helped to start a glass-blowing scene,” he said of NEPA artists.
That scene, which Maculloch said is alive and well today, has helped foster a broader arts community downtown.
“We still buy glass from them,” he said. “We’re still their customer.”
After walking into the store a decade ago, Maculloch went from employee to owner six years ago.
Maculloch said the shop, in conjunction with with the glass-blowing community and the more obscure arts community downtown has created a “microcosm.”
“It’s kind of become its own local economy,” he said.
“The artists stick around no matter if the city is thriving or a little grimy,” he added. “It’s the backbone of the downtown.”
In a broader sense, Maculloch said that the glass work is another type of popular art that is functional for smokers, but provides a source of intrigue for anyone who wants to enjoy the artistry in each piece.
“I think people are looking for new forms of art to enjoy,” Maculloch said.
He compared the popularity of the the glass community to that of tattoos. While once considered a taboo form of art, tattoos have become a mainstream art form, and Maculloch said most towns across the region have tattoo shops.
“I see this as a new pop art,” he said. “There’s something about our industry that lends itself to escapism.”
Across the community, he said, with shops like Electric City Tattoo and Loyalty Barber Shop popping up in the past couple years, as well as downtown staples like Top of the Slope, Marquee Art & Frame and Musical Energi, the arts community has really been able to thrive.
“We all click really well,” Maculloch said. “We all visit each other and check in. We have a really cool community on our block.”
In the last two decades, with ever-changing technology and the ability to get products from all over the United States, Maculloch said Utopia has a variety of products by artists from all over, but still keeps its local ties.
“We pride ourselves on being from Wilkes-Barre,” he said. “Because of that, it’s in our goals to carry as many local artists as we can.”
However, Maculloch said, glass is becoming an emerging art across the globe, and seeing the melding of styles has been a cool experience for him.
“In a lot of ways, it’s pushing the contemporary art scene,” he said.
Maculloch said the shop carries work by artists from Maine to California and “everywhere in between.” He said he also has an artist in Japan from whom he orders.
Some pieces are collaborations between different artists, adding another dimension to the artistic quality of the work.
“It’s as much a gallery as it is a retail store,” he said. “At least that’s the vibe we try to bring.”
And that vibe is evident as soon as a customer walks into the store. The walls are lined with intricate pieces of work displayed for anyone to appreciate.
Maculloch said the lighting, scents and overall feel of the shop is meant to welcome people to come in, relax, and enjoy everything Utopia has to offer.
And while the intricate pieces provide a gallery-like setting, Maculloch said he sees the cheaper merchandise sell more frequently to younger customers who attend the local colleges. He’s also noticed people who graduated come back to the area and pay the shop a visit.
“We do make somewhat of a lasting impact on the people who are passing through,” he said.
According to Maculloch, another market Utopia deals with regularly consists of both performers and audience members attending shows at the F.M. Kirby Center.
“Almost every show we see a nice little boost in customers from out of town,” he said.
In honor of their 20th anniversary, Utopia will hold a two-day celebration on Friday and Saturday. Maculloch said there will be lots of sales and in-store giveaways.
Above all, Maculloch invites people from all walks of life to stop into Utopia and see what the store has to offer.
“This is art for everybody,” he said. “I invite everyone to enjoy it.”