BASA: The Vogue-approved weed boutique trapped behind bulletproof glass
Two short blocks from the Painted Ladies – those garish Victorians of Full House fame that butt up against Alamo square – just off Divisadero, there’s a big rusty tin can full of weed. Ok, so it’s more like a rusty, high-security double wide full of weed.
At first glance, BASA, one of the Bay Area’s longest running dispensaries, isn’t much to look at it. With high-end boutiques like Vapor Room and Harvest pushing the boundaries of the dispensary experience, it’s hard to see why Vogue once called it “a stylish, sleek dispensary collective that more closely resembles a high-design doctor’s office.”
To be fair, the intentionally aged metal exterior feels right at home with 4505, the shipping container BBQ joint just down the block. Inside, there’s even a fair amount of boutique style merchandising. Only thing is, it’s all behind bulletproof glass. BASA, one of SF’s longest-running dispensaries, feels unnecessarily guarded in a post-prohibition world. This tarnished storefront in trendy NoPa (that’s North of Panhandle for the uninitiated) is a space in transition, with one foot in its Wild West past and the other in an uncertain future.
There are two types of dispensaries in San Francisco: the ones that let you shop for your weed and the ones that make you wait in line for it. The latter tend to have their roots in the medical marijuana movement, more concerned with community and safety than style and merchandising. The former, either newcomers or revamped veterans, have embraced cannabis as commodity, building open-air showrooms, where style sometimes trumps substance. Like many of its contemporaries BASA seems poised to make the boutique leap, but there’s one big imposing barrier holding it back.
It’s amazing what a sheet of bulletproof glass can do. It can mean the difference between life and death. It can protect a store’s inventory and cash flow or save an employees life.
It can also kill the mood.
BASA was born in the back of a Union Square internet cafe more than a decade before Proposition 64 made recreational use legal in California. At the time, the threat of retaliation from the federal government was still very real. As a result, there wasn’t much in the way of protection from law enforcement. If they wanted to create a safe space for their clients and their employees, businesses like BASA had to take security into their own hands.
In 2016, The Guardian reported that BASA had been “threatened multiple times by the DEA, evicted 10 times and robbed a few times, as well as having its business accounts shut down thrice.” BASA owner Tariq Alazraie put it this way: “We’re kind of in purgatory. Law enforcement doesn’t like us, and we’re attractive to the criminal element.” While the laws have changed, the dangers of selling weed on a mass-scale have continued.
Unfortunately, the need for security is often at odds with the customer experience. Nowhere is that more true than at BASA. Like most dispensaries, you’re greeted by a security guard who checks your ID before entering the building. Once inside, you’re immediately shuffled into a roped off line – the sort you see at the bank or TSA. Opposite the entrance, a wall of flat screens display the full menu. To the right, decorative metal bars cover a wall of windows. To the left, a line of budtenders stand at teller windows, greeting customers with microphones and dispensing weed through tiny openings in bulletproof glass.
It’s the sort of thing you expect at a gas station after dark, not at a Vogue-approved pot shop in the middle of the day. Behind the glass, BASA offers a small but decent selection of flower from brands like Bloom Farms, Korova, and Marley Naturals, with eighths starting at $30. There’s an extensive line of vapes and plenty of edibles, too. Extracts, tinctures, and topicals are a bit more sparse, but still available.
All of the products are out of reach and most are out of sight, which leaves little room for discovery and puts most of the burden on your budtender. We typically spend some time chatting, trying to get a better sense of the place and its menu, but bulletproof glass puts up more than a physical barrier. While I know it’s there for security – and for good reason – I’m also acutely aware that I’m not behind it.
It wasn’t until we reached the teller window that we realized what Vogue was talking about. Someone here clearly cares about aesthetics. In fact, behind that sheet of glass, it’s another world entirely. The light, wood-grain shelves are clean and well organized and a subtle drip-paint pattern brings some excitement to an otherwise plain grey wall. Massive, impenetrable obstructions aside, our experience here was pleasant. Our budtender clued us into a birthday special after checking our IDs and helped us find a pre-roll with little fuss. She complimented our outfits, and we were out the door.
It’s amazing what a sheet of bulletproof glass can do. It can mean the difference between life and death. It can protect a store’s inventory and cash flow or save an employees life. It can also kill the mood. With that one element, BASA has split itself in two. On the one side, a thoughtfully designed weed boutique, on the other, a soulless waiting room. More than anything, though, it has created an environment in opposition to education and discovery. For curious first timers and casual shoppers that could be a total buzzkill.
There’s a delicate balance between security and service in this business. With shops like Vapor Room and Harvest managing to safely break with traditional retail models, striking that balance is more important than ever. BASA has everything it needs to create a compelling retail experience. It also has a giant sheet of bulletproof glass.