A Hit of Privilege: How Maharaja’s Has Lasted Nearly 50 Years in St. Paul
After 43 years of business, St. Paul’s longest-running retail store, Maharaja’s, is going online and restructuring its brick-and-mortar space on West Seventh Street.
Maharaja’s sells psychedelic posters, body jewelry, and unending oddities, but it’s best known as a head shop—offering bongs, pipes, and CBD products in the attached smoke shop. It draws customers of all ages from all corners of the metro, many introduced by parents or grandparents. Its location near Xcel Energy Center assures a stream of visitors. Plus, there are the artists, musicians, and—as owner Jit Bhatia terms them—other “nonconformists.”
In 1970, at age 21, Bhatia moved from India to Minnesota to attend the University of St. Thomas, on the wealth of his family’s auto parts empire. He was a self-professed hippie with a penchant for fun, so in 1976, he opened High Times in the Maharaja spot on West Seventh—primarily to hang out.
And it’s not just bongs and black-light paraphernalia. There are original Andy Warhol prints, a thousand Peter Max pieces, Warner Brothers posters, Warhol’s signed birthday card to Greta Garbo, and 20,000 Grateful Dead posters bought after Jerry Garcia’s death. It has Jimi Hendrix tickets and the baseball that was used for Dave Winfield’s 2,986th (or 2,987th—Bhatia can’t remember) hit.
The artists were often friends whom he paid to make art when they were young and undiscovered. Some grew up to be Kii Arens or David Witt, and their early art in his attic snowballed in value. Bhatia has accumulated about 60,000 square feet of storage space filled with music, collectibles, art, and memorabilia—much of which will eventually be available online at nevermindgallery.com.
The brick-and-mortar store is being renovated into various components: The Temple of Rock—an experiential retail space dreamed up by Bhatia’s late daughter, Ena; the Health and Wellness Center, “an old hippie store” with peace, love, incense, legal herbs, and spiritual collections; pop-ups featuring different sectors of Bhatia’s massive collection; and an event space.
The now almost 70-year-old is quick to say that he’s been “served everything on a silver platter since birth.” He has sold parts of the collection over the years. Those proceeds, paired with family wealth, means that it doesn’t really matter how the P&L statement looks. It’s never been about the money. It’s never had to be.