On Jan. 29, 1991, Bonnie Dahl thought for certain that her Boulder business and her future were doomed.

The co-owner of The Pipefitter on University Hill got a call from her manager: Federal agents had raided the shop and started boxing up pipes, scales and other items they deemed were illegal drug paraphernalia.

They took over the store's phones, seized the mail and froze bank accounts -- including the personal account of Dahl, who was a day away from closing on a new house. As the business' owner, Dahl faced possible criminal charges.

She wondered what she was going to say to her three young children.

Dahl's store was one of five Colorado head shops targeted that day for "Operation Pipe," a joint effort between U.S. Customs and state regulators that focused on the "unlawful interstate trafficking of drug paraphernalia."

"Operation Pipe" did not snuff out the Pipefitter.

Twenty-two years later, the smoke shop now known as the Fitter is marking its 40th anniversary.

The milestone comes months after Colorado voters passed Amendment 64, which legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana and set the stage for the state Legislatures to develop a regulatory framework for the retail sales of recreational marijuana.

After a frenetic past, the Fitter has new digs and a resurgence in potential with an easing in restrictions on marijuana-related laws. Plus, its owners have launched a new frozen yogurt business on the Hill.

"Obviously it's been kind of full circle, which we never expected," Dahl said.

Rebuilding from 'nothing'

The shop's beginnings date back to spring of 1973 when Dahl's brother, Bruce Klahr, opened The Pipefitter at 1352 College Ave. in a small shop located just west of the University of Colorado campus.

Ryan Gaddis, an employee of The Fitter, displays some of the pipes on hand at the store. The Fitter, a seller of pipes and clothing, is celebrating its
Ryan Gaddis, an employee of The Fitter, displays some of the pipes on hand at the store. The Fitter, a seller of pipes and clothing, is celebrating its 40th year in business. ( CLIFF GRASSMICK )

Business took off and Klahr briskly expanded the Pipefitter to nine stores in college markets and opened a large warehouse in Denver.

Just as quick, the winds shifted. The Pipefitter was not immune from the effects of the recession and Klahr shuttered most of his stores and put the Boulder location on the block.

He sold it to his twin sisters, who were fresh out of college, for a price of $100 a week for two years.

"We thought we were getting ripped off, actually," Dahl said.

The sisters were 22 years old -- a "very naive 22" -- and didn't take the business seriously at first, Dahl said. With a manager in place, they headed to Phoenix for a week to sunbathe.

In short time, they gained their business chops and the passion for the retail operation, Dahl said, noting those elements were critical in times of adversity.

Those tumultuous times, however, would frequently surface for the business.

The legal concerns for the Pipefitter started in the 1980s as items such as plastic water pipes, roach clips and glass Toker II bongs were criminalized by some municipalities. Crackdowns on the distributor and supplier level limited supplies and forced wholesales, such as brother Bruce Klahr, out of the industry.

"Things were very scary during that period," Dahl said.

After exiting the '80s relatively unscathed, the Pipefitter felt the hammer come down in the early '90s.

The 1991 raid left the business devoid of most of its products. Gift items and $2 in petty cash was all that remained.

Dahl was able to avoid a prison sentence after she pleaded down the charges and the fine -- to just the $55,000 initially seized by the agents -- and reached a settlement agreement with the government.

"To fight with the federal government at that level was going to be astronomical and there was a real chance of losing," Dahl said.

She chalked up the event as a business loss and the Pipefitter moved forward.

By 1994, the business had recovered from its losses.

"We had to rebuild from nothing," she said.

New directions

The Fitter on Hill48.JPG Examples of the colorful and creative glass work at The Fitter.The Fitter, a seller of pipes and clothing on The Hill, is
The Fitter on Hill48.JPG Examples of the colorful and creative glass work at The Fitter. The Fitter, a seller of pipes and clothing on The Hill, is celebrating its 40th year. ( CLIFF GRASSMICK )

The regulatory climate eased somewhat and the Pipefitter and other shops were able to continue the sale of pipes and bongs as tobacco smoking accessories.

A different shoe dropped in 1996 and Dahl's Pipefitter lost eight days of business and a chunk of cash to have asbestos removed in the building it was leasing.

"There was no choice," she said. "That was another crossroads for us."

It was rebuilding time again for the business, which experienced a resurgence after glass pipes started coming into play.

The momentum came to a halt in 2003, during George W. Bush's term as president. Attorney General John Ashcroft launched the "Operation Pipe Dreams" investigation that targeted distributors and resellers of "drug paraphernalia."

Head shops across the nation were targeted in raids and the Pipefitter's 30th anniversary celebration became a massive liquidation sale for thousands of pipes.

"Once again, we found ourselves having to reinvent our entire existence and livelihood because we were not selling any pipes," she said.

Dahl's daughter Erica, who had taken a bigger management role with the store, developed the idea of bringing in clothing, footwear and accessories to cater to the college-aged girl demographic.

The Pipefitter eventually became The Fitter and the success of the new product line spurred the creation of a new business. Spearheaded by Erica Dahl, the family opened Savvy on Pearl, a women's boutique on the Pearl Street mall. Savvy experienced its own success, with Erica Dahl opening a sister store in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 2011.

Instead of duplicating efforts with Savvy, the Fitter focused its attention on young men's apparel and smoking accessories -- thanks in part to the regulatory climate clearing once again.

Its history being any indication, the Fitter's recent years were not absent of incident or change.

A development partnership's plans to raze the buildings off 14th Street and College Avenue meant the Fitter would be out of a home. By pure happenstance, competitor Color the World was closing up shop -- allowing the Fitter to move north to its current home at 1303 Broadway.

The Fitter also benefited from a renaissance in the artistry of glass pipes. As artists gained national acclaim, the Fitter's legacy helped it land prized and unique pieces, Bonnie Dahl said.

The breadth of products coupled with a nearly 180-degree flip in the regulatory environment allowed the business' sales to flourish.

Nationwide, the smoke shop industry's sales have grown by more than 20 percent annually, said David Hirschfeld, sales manager for CHAMPS, which operates the world's largest counterculture business-to-business wholesale trade expo.

"Only time will tell, but we see future growth in the world in general with our industry. Industrial hemp, hydroponics, individual artists with our ArtiZen section, which will include alternative products as well as services, we have had people tattooed in out venue before," Hirschfeld said in an e-mail to the Camera. "We hope that CHAMPS will compare to the likes of MAGIC clothing convention, CES, Comicon, SEMA, etc., and -- with the progression the country is moving forward in -- we see it happening sooner than later."

Further growth for the Fitter also could hinge on what evolves from Amendment 64.

"There could be a tourist market," Dahl said.

The Fitter also is facing more competition than ever.

"We've been fortunate because we have a good reputation," she said. "People come and find us from all over the country."

The Fitter's stability allowed Dahl and her husband, Gary, to branch out on another venture -- Yoyo's Frozen Yogurt, the Hill's first self-serve frozen yogurt shop.

Contact Camera Business Writer Alicia Wallace at 303-473-1332 or wallacea@dailycamera.com.