Features & Columns

Paramount Imports Stands the Test of Time, Internet, Corporatization

Paramount Imports has stayed in business for 50 years by
celebrating all cultures and subcultures
Paramount Imports has stayed in business for 50 years by celebrating all cultures and subcultures.

Tim Eglington doesn't remember when he first started working at Paramount Imports. It seems like one of those mystical passages of time with no end and no beginning. Within seconds, though, Stacy Sargent, the owner and decades-long manager of Paramount, jumps in the back to retrieve the answer: 1987.

Eglington is one of many with decades of Paramount experience. The time component is crucial because once again, anniversaries are exploding out of nowhere. Exactly a month from now, Paramount will throw a huge party to celebrate its 50th year at 455 Meridian Ave. Forget the Summer of Love. This is the summer of Paramount Imports.

Generations of outcasts cut their teeth at Paramount, myself included. It was the first place in the Bay Area to specialize in pipes and smoking paraphernalia before that stuff became an industry. It was also the first place in San Jose to sell Doc Martens, punk clothing, incense from India, tarot cards and black light posters of topless women. Long before local record stores popularized the rock poster phenomenon, Jim Morrison and Bob Marley posters flew off the racks at Paramount.

When original proprietor Dave Kowal first opened Paramount, it really was an imports store. He sold statuary and home decor from Mexico. Within a few years, though, pipes and posters began to fill the shelves. As the psychedelic '60s morphed into the freewheeling '70s, the stock evolved into a counterculture bouillabaisse of items. The rear half of the store turned into an exotic haven for water pipes, smoking paraphernalia and magazines. The front half evolved into a sordid mishmash of rock digs, biker oddities, crystals, counterculture books, T-shirts, black light equipment, jewelry, shoes, purses, tapestries and much more, all of which catered to the underbelly of suburban America.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, Kowal began printing his own posters out of the back of the building while running a T-shirt shop near Star Records on the East Side. But it wasn't fruitful enough. He wanted out.

Sargent, who attended Lincoln High School, met her husband, John, in the music library at West Valley College. John held a music degree from San Jose State University and was a lifelong jazz musician. They got married in June of 1980 and then bought the Paramount Imports business a few weeks later. In the 1990s, after several dramatic ups and downs, including a fire, they were able to buy the property. Even though John is no longer with us, Paramount remains a family business. Stacy's son, Casey, is set to take over the property when the time is right.

As we all congregate in the back of the place, it becomes easy for me to suggest that Paramount is the only joint of its kind in San Jose history. It has an Original Joe's degree of staying power, even if the competition seems like an entire sea of vendors selling the same thing online, offline, American made or Chinese made.

The entire paraphernalia industry has gone corporate, so I can't help but ask them why Paramount still carries on when so many other businesses have disintegrated, given up, or been replaced by hideous cookie-cutter condos.

"We're a destination," Stacy says. "We're a living, breathing place. We have super cool people working here."

Casey agrees: "We offer an experience you can't get on the internet. We've been here for 50 years, we're family-owned and we treat our customers like family."

As they issue me handwritten testimonials from other employees, I can't even sort it all out. In the end, Tim wanders over and explains that it's not just a store. The employees really feel like they're helping customers discover and celebrate new cultures and subcultures.

"Back in the 1980s, it always made me so happy to sell a kid their first Bauhaus or Sisters of Mercy shirt," Tim says. "And I could say, 'If you like them, then you'll like Christian Death.' It's almost like a rite of passage for a lot of people. At the end of the day, yeah, it's just a store, but we really try to make it more than that."

Paramount Imports Smoke Shop
455 Meridian Ave, San Jose