Billion Dollar Hippie – by Michael L. Klassen, Ph.D. how a handful of haight-ashbury freaks revolutionized american business in less than a hundred weeks

Jay Thelin

August 1, 2011 interview with Jay Thelin, owner of the legendary Psychedelic Shop on 1535 Haight Street in San Francisco, CA.

Mike Klassen: Tell me about yourself. How did you and your brother, Ron, come to play such important roles in the Haight-Ashbury Hippie Movement?

Jay Thelin: I graduated from San Francisco State University (SFSU) in 1965 as a pre-law major and didn’t want to go to work or law school right away so I got a job at Lake Tahoe and tried out for the ski patrol at Squaw Valley. As it turned out, there was no snow that winter and so I got another job helping remodel a house with this contractor. One day, while I was doing some painting on a house, (an idea) occurred to me and I called (my brother) Ron and said: “This is it.” I told him that we needed to open a shop that provided information on LSD. That was late 1965 and we opened the shop on January 3, 1966. We were careful to never sell drugs out of the shop. (Rather) we provided information on LSD, including records and books. Ron and I started using LSD in 1964, and I only used LSD thirteen or fourteen times in total. My brother had to try everything. It was like he loved everything he put in his mouth, and that contributed to his early death in his fifties.

Klassen: Where were you living at that time?

Thelin: Ron and I bought a house in San Francisco at 897 Clayton Street. We bought it purely because it was cost- effective. We paid $42,500 with a $1,000 down in 1964. It was a three-story with seven bedrooms, a pre-earthquake Victorian. This is where we started using LSD. We rented out five rooms for $50 a month, mostly to SFSU students. We opened the shop in January 1966. We sold the house in fall 1967 for the same price we paid for it. This was before the death of the hippie march in October 1967. The same house sold recently for $1.7 million. When we sold it, twenty people were living in the house and no one was paying rent. In the year we owned it, the house evolved into the quintessential hippie homestead.

Klassen: So, the very first hippie shop on Haight Street – yours and Ron’s place – was designed primarily to educate people about LSD.

Thelin: Right. I mean, you have to sell things to keep a shop open, but the stuff we sold was all about LSD. It wasn’t just us – the thing that got all the businesses going in the Haight after we opened was the creative energy of the LSD trip. When we stocked the book, Psychedelic Prayers, in our shop we started with 200 copies. They were all sold in the first day. Again, the idea of the Psychedelic shop was to provide folks with the materials they would need to insure a safe and enlightening experience. The sub-title on our business cards was, “books, records, art works”. It has always been very difficult to convey the profundity of the experience to one who hasn’t had it. You must realize that for many of us the psychedelic experience was a life changing endeavor.

Klassen: So, what is your personal opinion of the role LSD ultimately played in the movement?

Thelin: You know, I first took acid after hearing (Dick) Alpert talk at SFSU. Ron and I and a lot of the early folks felt that if we turned on people with LSD, this would change the world – change the stuff in the war in Vietnam and the race problems in the country. So, for us, taking acid was an act of conscience, not just hell-raising. Until we could get people to turn on, we just felt that any attempts at changing things would be nothing but head-butting.

Klassen: Why is that? Why was LSD such an important link to the change you wanted to see happen in the country?

Thelin: LSD re-programs a person’s thinking. Remember the experiment with the baby geese and imprinting? (Note: Jay is referring to experiments done by Dr. Konrad Lorenz where ducklings introduced to an animal other than their mother, such as a human being, would naturally follow the human’s lead just as though it was their mother.) Well, LSD allowed you to re-imprint your brain. It offered a “born-again” experience, a rebirth. When you are 25, this sounds pretty good, like you would be able to really change the world if you could just get people to drop LSD. That is what started (the hippie movement) – Let’s change the world! LSD was nothing more than a tool – a tool for changing the world.

Klassen: Sounds kind of risky to me – telling people to turn on.

Thelin: Here is what I concluded about using LSD: If you were loved and cared for as a child, the trip will be good, if not, LSD will not work well for you. Also, remember that LSD was not illegal at this time, so there was no legal reason a person could get arrested for advocating or using LSD. In fact, Ron and I wrote a letter to the (San Francisco) Chronicle (newspaper) offering to turn on members of the entire San Francisco Police Department! There was a giant coming together of common ideas about LSD at this time. Along with (Timothy) Leary, a lot of us were reading (Aldous) Huxley’s, (The) Doors of Perception. We stocked our store with these kinds of books to make sure that people had a good trip.

Klassen: Why do you think LSD was so powerful?

Thelin: LSD could put you in touch with the ideas of the Buddha, based on stillness. (Along with this quiet and stillness) on the other side (of the LSD trip) was the freeing-up of your body with the (help of) music. That was what made it so profound – when you took LSD, you had this quiet spiritual experience (combined with) the experience of freedom with your body – sex and dancing. This is what was meant by the phrase (popular at the time), “Freak freely.”

Klassen: Sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.

Thelin: Well, yes, but don’t forget that there was this additional component to LSD: spiritual. Have you ever stopped to ask, what happened to the spiritual side of the LSD trip, to the moral mandate, the desire to change things for the better?

Klassen: You tell me.

Thelin: Here is what you need to know about these two sides – the physical and the spiritual – of the LSD trip and what happened in the Haight: It was the young people who went to the physical, the sexual side, while us older guys, the original hippies, went to the spiritual side of the trip. We were older than the baby boomers and we didn’t have any idea how these kids, these teeny-boppers, would use LSD. It was like they suddenly showed up – all these college kids – and they were 7 and 8 years younger than us. Many of the original Haight-Ashbury hippies had already graduated from college and many had started their adult lives. We didn’t expect these kids to go the route of free sex, but they did. It makes sense – all those teenagers and hormones. On the other hand, most of us early guys were in our late-twenties. Some of us were married, had kids. We enjoyed sex as much as anyone else, but that is not how we looked upon the acid trip.

Klassen: Why do you think most Americans think only of sex and not the spiritual aspects of LSD?

Thelin: That was media-created. The media got a hold of the sex side and ignored the spiritual aspect of the acid trip. And then the “free sex” thing just exploded with the San Francisco music scene and the free concerts in the park. On October 6, 1966 – 666 – LSD became illegal, and that was when the movement and the hope of getting people to have a spiritual re-awakening with the help of LSD unraveled. It wasn’t going the way we planned. We wanted this awareness through LSD to just emerge without anyone knowing what happened – we weren’t into blowing your own horn. We just wanted to let it happen – under the table. Suddenly, the whole world was watching what was going on in the Haight. And then, of course, there was the illegality of LSD – no one wanted to go to jail over taking some LSD but all of us wanted the revolution to continue. So this presented another challenge.

Klassen: You were a San Francisco kid.

Thelin: Right. Dad ran the Woolworth Store on Haight Street when no one had heard of Haight-Ashbury in the early 1940′s. It was located directly across the street from where we eventually opened our shop, the Psychedelic Shop. Dad was committed to Woolworth and his goal was to own his own store someday. He got a raw deal, though. He was doing real well and then one day, he asked one of his employees to do some work for him, some personal chores you know, and this was against company policy. So he was let go. It was a real shame and it really brought dad down emotionally for some time. He had worked diligently for over 20 years with this company and really believed in them. And then he was brought down on some small technicality.

Klassen: Was he and your mother proud of your accomplishments in the hippie movement?

Thelin: Our folks were really upset with us at first as we were both Eagle Scouts and we were running this business devoted to educating and enlightening people about a drug, you know, about LSD. But in the end, it all worked out and in the later years, mom and dad admired the things my brother and I did. Dad and I ended up having a good relationship, and I actually hired him for my boat restoration business. We became close again. That business, my boat business, entailed constructing and working on wooden boats, and for the first time in his life, my dad was able to work with his hands. Until then he had been a company man and never really worked with wood and construction types of things. He really loved working with the wood and building things and that is how he spent the last years of his life.

Klassen: You had several businesses, didn’t you? But none of them, except the Psychedelic Shop, had anything to do with LSD.

Thelin: That’s true, but there was a connection between the hippies and both of my businesses later on after I left Haight-Ashbury. The Haight kids (the hippies) wanted to do work that would allow them to take care of themselves and not be taken care of by some corporation. Many wanted to work with their hands – farming, construction, and so forth. That’s how I got into restoring wooden boats. I loved old boats. Some guys, my hippie friends, started making wine, some got into farming – thousands of young people took a different direction in their life than they and their parents had planned. They wanted to return to the basics. My life is a testament to that. I restored boats for 10 years and then I designed an environmentally-friendly pellet-burning stove. I worked the pellet stove business for 31 years and in August 2009, I sold the business. I worked for the new owners for another 6 months and then fully retired.

Klassen: You sound happy with how your life and work turned out.

Thelin: Well, you know I never really scored the big one – I never made millions – but it was okay with me and my wife because of our spiritual side. We are both at peace with our simple lives and everything the psychedelic experience promised has come to fruition. But I never stopped being a businessman, and I carried the discipline of the spiritual side with me the whole way. That spirituality came out of the Haight. My wife and I have been married for over 40 years and have one son, who just got married. She was a hippie, too and we both led the hippie life. But shortly after we met, we both adopted a meditative approach to spirituality. After we adopted this, we decided to stop having sex until we were officially married. We also stopped drinking alcohol and using drugs, and we became vegetarians. This is the way it has been for us for 40 years now.

Klassen: That’s fascinating. The man perhaps most associated LSD and with the psychedelic aspects of the Haight-Ashbury hippie movement eventually left the Haight and never dropped acid again.

Thelin: That’s right.

Klassen: Why did you decide to close The Psychedelic Shop? I mean this was an incredibly important shop for the movement and yet you and Ron closed it down in October of 1967.

Thelin: It wasn’t my idea to close the shop. In fact, I had hoped to franchise it and take it nationally. Ron closed it and there was nothing I could do about it because I was in jail at the time.

Klassen: What landed you in jail?

Thelin: I had this Ford woodie (station wagon) and my friends and I took it to drive out to Four Corners (California). I let the other guy drive and, as it turned out, I had only one good headlight. So we got pulled over. My buddy took the ticket and put it in his pocket. We eventually got to Fresno where we got drunk and went to Denny’s. I stayed in the car and went to sleep and the other three went to Dennys and my friend lights up a joint and they arrest him. When they book him they see the ticket in his pocket and discovered that I was the owner of the vehicle. So, my buddy gets taken off to jail and it is four in the morning and I am still sleeping in the car. Then, the police arrive. They slam me up against the car and ask me where the drugs are and I tell them that they are under the seat. We had LSD, peyote, and pot. They booked me and I was in jail for 19 days. When I got out, I went back to the city where I was busted again for selling a book of poems, called the Love Book, written by Lenore Kandel, which had been banned as obscene material. That case, thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union, was dropped. I ended up spending 3 months in the state prison as a result of the pot bust in Fresno. It was a very bad time in my life. When I finally got out and returned to the city, Ron had sold the shop. I went into the place and everything was gone – all the posters, books. He had just given everything away, stuff that would be worth thousands today. I just hit rock bottom at that point and decided to take a new route.

Klassen: Ron had a different attitude about the shop. You two were different when it came to business.

Thelin: Yes, that’s true. Ron was profoundly affected by the Diggers, who thought that we should be giving away all our merchandise for free. This was ludicrous, of course. But Ron bought into their philosophy. He would give money to people, money we didn’t really have, like $500 to Allen Cohen, who helped found the Oracle newspaper. The Oracle was a great paper, but we needed to make money to stay in business, so there was some tension between us on this. The money for the Oracle was given by me to Ron early in 66. The Oracle was a righteous endeavor and became the best and most famous of the underground newspapers. It articulated the spiritual side of the hippie endeavor and was an attempt to turn the drugs, sex and rock and roll into something positive. Also, the Diggers did some great things and their concern was that thousands of kids were coming to the Haight from all over America with no place to stay, no food to eat and no idea that what the media had created had actually happened six months before they got there. They made the effort to counter this to provide some degree of comfort to thousands of lost kids. Bottom line is, we couldn’t afford to give money away, no matter how good the cause was. We were really struggling and then, on top of it all, I learned that we were getting ripped off. People were stealing LPs (vinyl records) and our porcelain Buddhas which were hugely popular at the time, and these thefts really hurt our business. Just a few years ago, this guy came up to me and told me he had stolen 13 albums from our shop and that he felt bad about it all these years. You know, they arrested one guy on the L.A. runway and it turned out that he had 23 albums he had stolen from the Psychedelic Shop. We were too trusting – and that was the start of the whole negative element in the movement. The Diggers thought all shop owners were greedy capitalists. So they rationalized that it was okay to steal from us. Ron eventually went totally with the Diggers, and that ended my vision for a franchise of the shop.

Klassen: You would have probably done well had you gone national with the shop. After all, your shop was the very first “head shop” in the nation and today that industry is worth millions.

Thelin: Who knows where this might have taken us? But Ron never really got into business again. He did cement work, drove a taxi for a while… He helped in environmental stuff in Marin (County). He died of liver cancer in the 1990s. Read the obituary of Ron Thelin.

Klassen: What was a typical day in The Psychedelic Shop like?

Thelin: I don’t know if there was a typical day, but there was a routine that transpired over time that kind of set the rhythm for the hippie movement. The shop sold tickets to the Fillmore and Avalon (concert halls). So the “hippie routine” was to go to the Avalon and Fillmore on the weekend to take in a show with the Dead or Airplane, or whoever, and then during the week, go to the Haight where the concerts were free. The Fillmore and Avalon concerts on the weekends cost money, but during the week, there were free concerts going on in the Haight along with free food. We sold tickets to all these events. So the Haight and our shop became a focal point for the movement, for those people who wanted to live the hippie life. If you were going to be a hippie and lead the hippie lifestyle, this is what you did. In contrast, North Beach and other bohemian neighborhoods kind of died at this time because there was nothing really going on there. When I was in college at SFSU in the early sixties, I used to go down to North Beach a lot and party down there with old beatniks and bohemians – but even then it was nothing like the old days in the late fifties. By 1966, the Haight was the place to be, not North Beach, and our shop sat at the center of it all. It really worked well for a time, but then it got away from us. The young kids started to arrive and we could see some real trouble brewing with the summer of love coming up in 1967. We really tried to work with the city in anticipation of the summer of love, but we were misunderstood. The summer of love was pretty much the end of the road for the hippies – us original hippies. The summer of love was chaos, and there was nothing we could do about it – it was just too big and unwieldy. The police and the hippie community needed to work together on this, but that just didn’t happen. My brother helped lead the “death of the hippie” march which took place just a few months after the summer of love ended. We buried the Haight-Ashbury hippie for good in October 1967.

Klassen: You mentioned North Beach, the home of the beat movement. Of course, Berkeley was just across the bridge and UC-Berkeley was hot bed of student revolt. So what was going on with the beats and the student radicals at the time of the hippie movement?

Thelin: By 1965, nothing really was happening in North Beach. The beats were gone, but keep in mind that the beats were really just straight, middle class kids. They were weird before they got to North Beach. The beats were out of the mainstream right from the get-go, already back in high school. True, the beats realized the crassness of consumerism, but primarily they were writers. Their drugs were pot and opiates and our drugs were psychedelic.

Klassen: And what about the Berkeley students radicals?

Thelin: In the beginning, there were five or six hippies that met off-and-on with the Berkeley people. We finally decided to be more deliberate and set up a meeting between the hippie and Berkeley leaders. We went to their turf and met in this house in Berkeley and started talking. We wanted them to see how we wanted to change society, but they just didn’t get it. Their approach was so politicized and activist, you know, and our approach was more subtle, let it happen. The culmination of the political approach was the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968. We finally threw out bags of joints on the table and told them they all needed to get high if they were ever going to understand our ideas about social change. Everybody got high. After that, the Berkeley people got it and (Jerry) Rubin and everybody finally started seeing it our way. Shortly thereafter, the long hair, beads, and other hippie stuff started showing up in Berkeley. Next, middle-class kids running away from home started showing up in the Haight and taking on the hippie attitudes and appearance. You know, their parents were lamenting – “what did we do wrong, we gave them everything.” The political radicals in Berkeley sped up the social change once they turned on with LSD and pot. So let the history books record: Haight turned on Berkeley, not vice versa.

Klassen: All these years later, is there one hippie that stands out in your mind?

Thelin: I’d have to say that Chet (Helms) was the most profound person in the Haight because he had shoulder-length hair before anyone else did. I know that sounds pretty superficial, but the long hair was pretty important. Why did we do that hair thing? I think it just happened, but there was a lot of meaning behind it. Here’s an example: I used to have this old Ford woodie – it was kind of ratty but it had a new engine – and one day, I was coming down Stanyon Street and in the car right next me was a middle-class black couple in a brand new Buick. She took one look at me with my long hair and quickly rolled up her window. Suddenly, she broke out laughing. She realized that she was judging me on my appearance, just like people had judged her on her appearance. So I gave her the peace sign and she gave me the peace sign back. She knew instantly what she had done and then it became a joke to her, because clearly I was no threat to her. Long hair changed people.

Klassen: Anyone else in the Haight you believe played a significant role?

Thelin: I read your book (I had provided Jay with an early, pre-published manuscript of the book), and I noticed that you commented on Emmett Grogan. Emmett was dynamic and a real personality but he should not be given more credit than he was worth. I also believe that (Bill) Graham’s and Chet’s (Helms) relationship needs to be made clear for future readers and students interested in knowing about the hippie movement. The two of them started out together promoting concerts, but it didn’t take long for them to go their separate ways. Why did they break up? I know Chet was a real hippie, but what about Graham? First of all, Helms never made any money in all his promotions and Graham made gobs of money. Second, as soon as LSD was made illegal, Graham tried to prevent Kesey and others from bringing it into the Fillmore to the concerts. In other words, Chet and Bill had two different philosophies.

Klassen: Of course, the concerts these two men promoted are the stuff of rock history. Where do you believe it began – that is, where did the hippie music scene begin?

Thelin: I know exactly where it began. Graham started doing Mime Troupe benefits in mid- to late-1965. These benefits started out slow and then just exploded. This is important so listen carefully: the entire San Francisco hippie music scene began with the Mime Troups benefit concerts that Graham organized to raise money for his theater troupe. I mean you had the Jefferson Airplane, the Charlatans – one of the first S.F. bands that got their start in Virginia City, NV. – and the Dead. They were performing for charity to help out the Mime Troupe in those early days. I was with Bill one night at one of these early benefits. There were so many people lined up on Howard (Street) waiting to get in, to hear the music. I remember that there was a big 50-gallon drum at the top of the stairway that was jamming up everything and so I picked it up and handed it to Bill and the traffic just started to surge in. It was out of those early benefits that the whole San Francisco hippie music scene started – before the Human Be-In, before the summer of love, and long before Woodstock. Those early benefits brought together two important groups: the musicians and the street people – anyone could get in for a couple of dollars, or even free. The benefit concerts changed everything

Klassen: Any thoughts about Ken Kesey?

Thelin: Ken played a monumental role, and it all centered on the house on Ashbury, where the Dead lived. Kesey was hopeful about the country. He said that the country would be okay as long as its media was free. I guess this is what I would say about Kesey: Ken went to the world (with his books) and shortly thereafter, the world came to the Haight. So he was indispensable to the movement.

Klassen: You said that you and Carol were religious. Any thoughts about religion and the role Pastor Cecil Williams played in the movement?

Thelin: I read in your book (the pre-published manuscript of the book) that hippie religion was a mish-mash. You’re right – anything was open to experimentation and that’s why everything just started to bubble up – astrology, Jesus, Buddha. And the hippies took their own individual routes – some became born-again, some reclaimed their Catholic faith, and some never found their way. Some ended up taking their own lives. Jesus was an important part, and I remember when they discovered the Shroud of Turin. The Shroud had a big impact on us hippies because it showed Christ as he really was and not as some beautiful, plastic, white person. In other words, we were fascinated with the Shroud because it had an element of reality to it – it wasn’t a rendering of Jesus or something concocted by the Church. I remember that when we first met Cecil Williams, he tried to convert us to Christianity. Cecil was trying to save us and we were trying to save the world. We told him to start helping those around him – that is what Jesus had in mind. And he listened to us. Eventually, a lot of Diggers embraced Cecil and got him to do the things he did. Before long, he was reaching out to the poorest people in the city. You should finally know that in the Haight, the I Ching was used decide everything. For example, we consulted the I Ching to decide on the day we should hold the Human Be-In – January 14, 1966. It was a beautiful day, right in the middle of winter!

Klassen: Any closing thoughts about the billion-dollar hippie?

Thelin: Profit eventually became god in the Haight and that was too bad. Don’t get me wrong: I have always loved business and I didn’t ever NOT want to be successful in business. But I am comfortable now, and we don’t live extravagantly. You never lose your anti-establishment edge. The pellet stoves I created are clean burning and non-polluting. They run on a fuel product gotten from waste, stuff they take to the landfill. Any organic material can be pelletized and used for fuel. You see, my life and my business are all the outcome of the hippie philosophy. These businesses and my lifestyle, my spirituality – all these are the fruit of those days in the Haight.

Share this page!
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Reddit Email