Through 45 years on Boulder's University Hill, The Fitter has survived a lot. Multiple recessions, a government raid, and the redevelopment of its original home. Now, facing another displacement, owner Bonnie Dahl is hopeful the head shop will live to see 50.

If The Fitter does reach its golden anniversary, it may be without Dahl at the helm.

"I'm 65 now; I'm ready to retire," she said. "But I'm not ready to let go of The Fitter. I I think (it's) going to continue on."

Dahl's departure is not imminent, she said, but might coincide with the redevelopment of the property at 1303 Broadway to make way for a 175-room hotel and 16,000-square-feet of retail, a project Pearl West developer Randy Nichols is overseeing.

The hotel is years away from being built, according to Sarah Wiebenson, Hill Community Development Coordinator. The architects are just now wrapping up concept design, and getting that through the planning board and city council could be an 18-month to two-year process, Wiebenson said. Construction will likely take another 18 months to two years.

"We're not close, but we're moving along," she said.

Though her business will be displaced, Dahl is highly supportive of the redevelopment, and the University of Colorado's planned hotel and conference center directly across Broadway.


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"The Hill has gone downhill" since the heyday of the '70s and '80s, when the area felt like a "vital" part of Boulder. Now, she said, "we're like the stepchild of the city. The university is proud of Pearl Street; they're going to encourage parents to go down there because they're embarrassed of the Hill.

"You can't go 40 to 50 years without any real change."

Raid and redevelopment

The Fitter is no stranger to change. A 2010 project forced the store to move from its longtime home at 1352 College Ave., where Dahl's brother opened it as The Pipefitter on March 1, 1973. Dahl and her twin sister bought the business in '75, during a downtown in the economy, and "somehow it survived," Dahl said.

It survived, too, a government raid on Jan. 29, 1991, a day Dahl has deemed Black Tuesday. Under a nationwide crackdown on drug paraphernalia such as the bongs and pipes the store sold, federal agents confiscated $55,000 in cash and thousands more in inventory; Dahl faced incarceration.

Paul Aiken Staff Photographer Jason Dahl arranges shelves at The Fitter in Boulder on Friday afternoon. Paul Aiken Staff Photographer March 2, 2018.
Paul Aiken Staff Photographer Jason Dahl arranges shelves at The Fitter in Boulder on Friday afternoon. Paul Aiken Staff Photographer March 2, 2018.

It took 13 months to reach a settlement. The government kept the money and Dahl stayed out of prison. But for the next three or four years, The Pipefitter did not sell pipes.

Pipes would be absent from the store's shelves again for a year in 2003 when rumors of raids began swirling once more. There were lines out the door when Dahl liquidated the inventory. It would also lead to a change in name for the shop; Dahl's daughter began selling clothing there, and the name changed to The Fitter.

Constantly updating its offerings has helped the store stay relevant as its target demographic — CU students — have changed.

"Obviously in the '70s and '80s, the students were the hippies," Dahl recalled. "Then I would say from the '90s on, they turned into more collegiate and more into the college sports and back to the sororities and fraternities. I remember declaring there are no more hippies anymore."

The 2000s saw the influx of the out-of-state big spenders: kids with cash. They were ready to spend on pipes and more, and the decade was a good one for The Fitter. The legalization of marijuana in 2014 gave a brief boost, but sales took a hit as competition came to town, hoping to cash in on the green rush.

'They care every day'

Things have picked up yet again in the past two to three years, Dahl said. She sees it all as the endless ebb and flow in the life cycle of a long-time retail shop.

"With any business over that period of time, it's going to be like that — up, down, sideways, whatever."

Dahl has complemented her business activities with plenty of civic ones. She was one of the founders of the first business association on the Hill, a forerunner of today's The Hill Boulder. She has served on various boards and committees for the downtown area, where she owns Savvy on Pearl, and last month was honored by the Downtown Boulder Partnership (DBP) with the George Karakehian Community Service Award.

"She is so visible and such a positive force outside of her business," said Sean Maher, head of the DBP. "Both of her businesses are successful in large part because of her active leadership."

Active is the key word, said Mark Heinritz, co-owner of The Sink.

"That's the glue to their longevity. They still show up to work everyday, they care every day. They've never farmed it out."

That because, at her core, Dahl loves retail. "I still enjoy it — you're kind of CEO of everything, you never know who's going to walk in. There's an excitement to it."

Plus, she added, "I'm a people person. I really enjoy working with college students. Every once in awhile, it's like, 'This is kinda weird.' I'm this 65-year-old woman selling pipes to college kids. But I've made it my career, and I'm good at it."

Shay Castle: 303-473-1626, castles@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/shayshinecastle