Celebrating 50 Years of The Fitter: An Interview with Owner Bonnie Dahl
March 23, 2023 / By Jake Hudson-Humphrey / Features
It's hard to imagine The Hill without The Fitter. For half a century, this family-owned business has weathered changes, challenges, and trends, adapting to the needs and wants of college students, locals, and tourists. From its early days selling wooden pipes to today's colorful glass bongs and electronic vaporizers, The Fitter has kept up with the times while remaining true to its mission. To celebrate its 50th anniversary, we sat down with longtime owner Bonnie Dahl to hear her insights on the past, present, and future of The Fitter and The Hill.
Q: Bonnie, you've been in business and on The Hill for fifty years now, what was your bestselling item then, and what is your bestselling item now?
A: For about the first 40 years, our bestselling items were always pipes. The materials have changed over the decades, starting with the prevalence of wood, bamboo, metal, and stone. Glass pipes didn't even come onto the market until the early 90's. The "art glass" scene has become really popular, so we feature a wide variety of glass art pieces from national and local artists. We also specialize in scientific glass tubes and rigs. Right now, our bestselling items are bongs, however colorful glass hand pipes continue to sell well too. Smoking accessories have evolved and become much more sophisticated and tech-oriented, especially vaporizers. College kid culture has changed too, so it’s important to keep up with the trends dictated by social media. Students are well educated on what they are looking for and we try to provide it.
Q: Did the legalization of marijuana change the nature of your business, and if so, how?
A: Interestingly enough, the legalization of marijuana did not change our business much. We have found that there is more competition that has come into the area, including glass pipes sold at dispensaries, as well as gas stations now. The "pot tourist" hasn't really materialized on the Hill much, except for the younger demographic. They tend to buy something cheap and temporary to use while they are in town. The Hill is not allowed to have any retail pot stores due to the 1000-foot rule across from the university.
Q: Can you talk a bit about yourself and your background? Where did you grow up and why'd you move to Boulder?
A: My twin sister and I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, graduating from ASU in 1974. Our senior year of high school in 1970 we entered this industry, working at our brother's first headshop in Phoenix. He soon opened one in Tempe where we worked in college until a fire burned it down to the ground in 1972. We bought The Pipefitter in Boulder from our brother in March of 1975, once he had opened the Boulder store in 1973. We had rocky times in our decades of owning our business, especially when we were raided by the federal government in 1991 for selling "drug" paraphernalia. We settled with the federal government 13 months later after paying exorbitant fines and hefty legal fees. We also survived a bout with asbestos removal where we had to move out everything from the entire building for 8 days before putting it back. Every cost was out of our pocket at the time. In 2010, the building owner tore down our building that housed The Fitter for over 37 years on College Avenue. We’ve had another location change since and are now located on 13th Street. We enjoy our new "hood" of The Hill.
Q: You and your sister took over the business from your brother 50 years ago. What does a 22-year-old girl taking over a pipe shop think to herself? What would you say to your 22-year-old self about business now?
A: Taking over a business to own and run at age 22 is a big challenge and learning experience, one that we probably didn't understand at the time. We were very naive and trusting and succeeded in the business despite our immaturity at the time. Any small business, especially retail, requires an owner to learn all aspects of business themselves: accounting, marketing, HR, sales, buying, pricing, cleaning, graphic work, etc. Today I would say to that 22-year-old self: work it hard, change when necessary, experience trial and error, and hire the right staff to support you. Retail requires you to do the work and “go with the flow.” It is rewarding when things work but can be discouraging many times as well.
Q: What are your favorite things about The Hill?
A: My favorite thing about The Hill is when the students are around and plentiful and it feels like there is energy on the streets and sidewalks. I still enjoy working with the student demographic after 50 years. The Hill has much potential, so I hold out for the future.
Q: The Fitter has moved locations since our last interview. (We’re so glad you’re still on The Hill!) Can you tell us a little bit about the new location?
A: The new location has been rewarding since we are 1.5 times larger--we managed to fill the space with clothing, hats, pouches, posters, tapestries, and even dog accessories.
Q: The Hill has had a lot of challenges in recent years, with the covid-19 pandemic, vacancies and new businesses popping up, and now two big hotel construction projects. How has The Fitter adapted to these changes?
A: During the pandemic business was very good for us since students were stuck at home on Zoom. They had nowhere to spend their disposable money since there was no travel and no concerts or festivals happening. Smoking marijuana became an even more popular pastime. As for the Hill’s other challenges, as a business you have to adapt to change or you die on the vine. That’s how we survived for 5 decades.
Q: What's next for The Fitter?
A: We will be working on our next decade of business on the Hill to keep serving more generations of college students, tourists, and residents, trying to be the best we can be.