Paul Staples was 17 when he tried his hand at molding glass, and he was hooked.
"I absolutely fell in love," he said about the three-day course he took at Corradetti Glassblowing Studio & Gallery in Baltimore.
It took him a few more months to find an instructor, focused on a form of glassblowing called "lampworking" that uses a blowtorch to shape the glass into various designs.
After trying to sell his creations in regional stores, Staples, 25, grew tired of seeing steep mark-ups on the products and decided to go into business for himself.
In November 2011, using a small inheritance he got from his grandmother, the 2007 Fallston High School graduate opened Dark Sea Glass LLC on Havre de Grace's Pennington Avenue.
Staples, who lives in the Havre de Grace area and has a business management degree from Harford Community College, likes the challenge of making objects like wine glasses – "getting that stem perfectly formed," he said.
The business side of things, however, makes it most profitable to churn out tobacco pipes and pieces.
He can make a pipe in just a couple of hours, while a wine glass would take half a day.
Although Staples also sells things like jewelry and goblets, "there is not much money in glass jewelry," he said.
Dark Sea Glass is primarily a smoke shop, with pipes and vape equipment, which means it operates in a "legal gray area," he said.
Laws and stereotypes
Glass pipes are popularly known for smoking vaporized marijuana. Since the drug remains illegal in anything but small quantities in Maryland, however, Staples is not allowed to imply the pipes can be used for anything except tobacco.
The Maryland General Assembly agreed to legalize pot paraphernalia this spring, which would have given places like Dark Sea Glass free business rein, but Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the measure.
The state's Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission is also preparing to get started.
"I am hoping once medical shops open in Maryland, there will be a little less stigma on the pipe industry as a whole," Staples said, noting older people often associate all marijuana use with grim cautionary tales like the movie "Reefer Madness."
"Especially in the older generation's eyes, there's a lot of stereotypes," he said.
Staples is not allowed to sell a product to anyone who says they plan to use it for anything illegal. If they indicate using a pipe for anything other than tobacco, for example, he must ask them to leave, which he has done.
"It's kind of like the military's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy," he said, referring to the overturned ban on discussing sexual orientation. "I think it's an absolutely silly way to run the world."
"Most people who have trouble following the rules are in their 50s and 60s," he noted, adding younger people tend to be better at staying in the "legal gray area."
An ancient art
Business and politics aside, Staples said what he really likes about the whole enterprise is definitely the art of sculpting glass.
Whenever he is not serving customers, he is in his small studio, surrounded by long glass tubes of different colors and designs.
Sitting in front of a blazing torch and wearing special goggles to protect his eyes from the glare, Staples twists and bends the glass pieces before sticking them into a small 1,040-degree kiln.
"I do enjoy it a little bit more [than the business]," he said about the lampworking. "There is always the fun of the large flames and the heat, and taking something that was very solid and permanent-looking and turning it into something very up-in-the-air-looking that anything can happen with."
He got into working with harder glass, or borosilicate, explaining: "It's mainly used for lab purposes, but slowly artists found that there are a lot of art aspects with it as well."
"Hard glass" can also be worked on in pieces, while "soft glass" has to be done in one piece, he explained.
His girlfriend, Carolyn Wilhour, began helping in the store several years ago and has tried her hand at making some beads.
"I like that it's a little intimidating, it's sharp, it's hot, it's unforgiving," Wilhour said about glassmaking.
Staples agreed the trick is to work with the glass, not try to force it. He is also glad to be part of a tradition that is thousands of years old.
"I was always told, 'You've got to listen to the glass a little bit,'" he said. "You don't control the glass. You kind of just suggest where you want it to go. It is allowing you to shape it. If you don't work with it, it's going to just fall apart on you."
One of his heroes is Lucio Bubacco, a master of glassblowing who makes fantasy goblets with demons and other creatures, Staples said.
"I would love to one day be even close to the same level," he said with a smile.
Staples does take custom orders, but the strangest requests he has received have nothing to do with glassblowing.
One person asked if he could make a window pane, while another brought in a lamp because he thought "lampworking" meant fixing a broken lamp. Staples did help him out by directing him to an electrician.
Quirky incidents aside, Staples said he has enjoyed being in downtown Havre de Grace and received a warm welcome from city leaders, despite being initially nervous because Dark Sea Glass was taking over a tattoo shop with some bad history.
He said he chose the downtown area because of the "gorgeous sights," but added he would like to see more promotion of business in general, as many area merchants have noted.
Staples thinks the city should encourage any business that wants to set up, instead of focusing on smaller shops.
Latest Harford County
"It's a mix of younger people that really want to see the town move forward and older people that want to see it the way it was," he said. "I am all for small business, but when your town is dying, that is not the time to only get small businesses."