The bubble business 

Are you tired of the indignities of sucking on spent toilet paper rolls, rotten apples, pop cans, bongs made from a musty pair of Doc Martens and Saran Wrap?

Well, Michael Farrington would like to show you something. He would like you to know that there’s a better way, a more artistic approach to your downtime diversions. He’d like to show you Lighthouse by Marcel, a water pipe so glorious in its presentation that its $5,000 price tag will hardly raise an eyebrow.

Well, maybe it will, but Mike’s Bubbler is not your father’s head shop. This is “art,” and “art” costs money.

Lighthouse is exquisite, so bright and colorful, so intricate and involved and complicated in its execution you’d think you were in a tony gallery in Birmingham. Well, you are. Kind of. This is the only gallery in town where, after purchasing one of these marvels, you can also stock up on the store’s main staples — beer- and wine-making supplies and a miniature brown keg called the Party Pig.

Mike’s Bubbler is on Woodward just north of 14 Mile Road. After a tour of the store, Farrington and I head out for some chow. He’s got his German shepherd Sexy Sadie with him, so we can’t go too far. The Mt. Chalet II is close, has the beer he likes, and Sadie won’t mind if we scarf down some burgers and a perfectly prepared whitefish, encrusted with Parmesan cheese and hazelnuts.

The place is dimly lit, full of dark red wood and Birmingham-type people. Tasteful sports shirts. Tastefully faded jeans. Shoes that get worn on this day of the week only. Tasty burgers accompanied by a condiment tray so big you need both hands to move the damn thing.

Farrington does not sport dreads. He does not drape his beefy frame with tie-dye or wooden jewelry. I do not smell patchouli oil. He looks like a soccer coach, or a social studies teacher, or perhaps even an energetic Lutheran minister. But he’s none of these things. He’s a businessman. He’s in the business of color and function and beauty.

“I only carry products I believe in,” he says. “They are all American-made. What you saw were the creations of more than 10 artists from around the country. I’m working with a guy in Eugene, Ore., right now producing what is really our pride and joy, The G-Bub. We’ve sold over a hundred G-Bubs.”

The G-Bub is an easy way of saying gravity bubbler, a glass water pipe that stands about two feet tall. It consists of three distinctive glass parts, all working Newton’s laws to perfection. It is so gorgeously crafted, so sensual in stature that you could give one to Granny for Valentine’s Day and she’d still love you.

“The G-Bub was named as such so we have something catchy to put on hats and other articles of clothing when we get to that stage. I want everyone to know about the G-Bub.”

Farrington is marketing his handmade glass products in a slightly more aggressive fashion than his snooty competitors.

“The so-called ‘real’ glass artists don’t want to work in this medium. They think it’s beneath them. But you saw the work I carry. Those are real artists, man. I’m giving glass artists an opportunity to make money. Let the ‘real’ artists starve if that’s what they want to do. We see a lot of art students who want to get involved in glass but have no viable way of making money from their art. That’s where we come in.”

Betraying his conservative appearance, Farrington does admit to following the Grateful Dead for years. There he learned all about street-level commerce, all about covering your expenses, diversifying and taking hits and moving on. The art of the deal. Buying five cases of beer and selling three and drinking the other two with your buds for free.

“Our G-Bub took a silver medal in a convention in Amsterdam this past November. People loved it. Our most avid fans seemed to be these middle-aged English ladies. We saw a lot of them at our booth.”

His gallery consists of a U-shaped glass cabinet in the rear of his store. The top shelf in the cabinet contains the smaller works. Glass fish, glass bugs. So colorful and bright they look like they’re dancing. Yeah, they’re pipes. But they could be jewelry for an Indonesian princess, or chunks of candy in Willy Wonka’s pockets. Art. Beauty. Function.

The second shelves are laden with more intricate works. Giant ribbons and splashes of color. These don’t look like fish. These look like explosions and Chinese tapestry and photos from the Hubble Telescope.

The bottom shelf is just insane. I have no idea how someone can manipulate sand and heat and assorted chemicals and come up with these monsters. Again, the colors take your breath away, the shapes demand a closer inspection. How does someone make a strand of glass so narrow, how does one mix a color so radiant? One of these bottom creations also doubles as an oil lamp!

“After ya get done raging on it, ya light the lamp and sit back and enjoy it. It’s very enjoyable.”

I’m sure it’s enjoyable. Just having $5,000 to spend on stuff like this would be enjoyable.

“Hey. We got stuff in all price ranges, Dan. From $20 to priceless!,” Farrington says with a laugh.

I have more spent toilet paper rolls and ready-to-rot apples than money this week, Mike. I’ll see ya around.

Dan Demaggio dines with interesting people for Metro Times. E-mail him at

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