It all started with a haircut.
Griffin Burns sat down in Noah Anderson’s barber chair in Uptown Normal, a day before his 25th birthday in December of 2019, feeling slightly depressed about his path in life. A year prior he’d set a goal of having a small business endeavor to “put his flag in.” He’d dabbled in small side businesses while working for State Farm, but nothing stuck. He shared all of this with Anderson, who casually mentioned that Mother Murphy’s was for sale. The conversation became a life-changing moment.
For C-U folks who aren’t familiar, Mother Murphy’s Rock-N-Roll Emporium is a legendary store located in Uptown Normal. It’s one of the oldest head shops in the U.S., opened in 1968 by Betty Anderson (no relation to Noah) and Charlotte Radka (née Murphy). However, it’s more than just a place to purchase a bong. In fact, until cannabis was legalized in Illinois, you couldn’t even use that word in the store. Mother Murphy’s is a celebration of counter-culture. The smell of incense hits your nose as soon as you get halfway up the iconic staircase. It’s dark, filled with records, tapestries, posters, clothing, and more, and of course there’s the back room where you can find all of your glassware needs. As a 13 year old growing up in Normal, slipping up the stairs with my friends on a summer afternoon, it all felt a bit forbidden. Mike and Becky Williams bought the store in 1990, and in 2019, they were ready to move on.
Burns’ response to Anderson’s revelation? “Okay I’ll look into it.” He called up his childhood friend Colton Walsh, who’d moved out of the area and was working construction in Washington State. Walsh happened to be returning home for the holidays in the next week. Walsh meets Anderson, the three come up with their approach, and they made their pitch to the Williams.
There were more than 50 offers already on the table, but they felt they had something unique to offer. “We’re from the town, we grew up with Mother Murphy’s, we’re in that culture…we live and breathe Mother Murphy’s culture. We may not have as much money as some of these people, or as much experience, but we’ve got the passion and the desire to make it happen.”
It turns out, they were just the right buyers. As Walsh was making the long trek back to Washington State, he got a call from Burns: “Hey man, they accepted our offer. We’re buying Mother Murphy’s.”
Fast forward to 2022, after bringing the original store through a global pandemic that started right after they took ownership, the trio (Burns and Walsh are managing the stores, as Anderson has moved to the St. Louis area) have now expanded the business to include a brand new store right here in Champaign. Expansion was always a part of their plan. It was something that the original owners envisioned as well. After hearing from customers that would drive to Normal specifically to shop at Mother Murphy’s, they decided Champaign was the place.
Their new home is on University, in the heart of Midtown, a locale that’s just ripe for development. The wheels are already turning with the possibilities this new location provides. It’s a completely different sort of space than the Normal store. It’s bright and airy and spacious, in contrast with the attic-like feel of the original. They’re eye-balling the lot next door as a place to regularly showcase local artists.
The new store is a bit of a blank canvas. Figuratively and literally. The merchandise is similar to what you’ll find in Normal, and Burns and Walsh have brought elements of that store to the Champaign version. There’s a black light room, and the glassware is still tucked away in the back, despite the change in laws. It’s an aesthetic choice, but also a concious decision to make the store a place that kids can enter without immediately seeing a shelf full of bongs.
There’s no iconic staircase, collecting signatures of those who visit. For now, there’s a large canvas, but there is a plan for some sort of recreation of the staircase experience.
Mother Murphy’s Champaign will not be a carbon copy of the original. There’s no way it can be, and that’s not what the owners want. “We’re not just some ordinary retail store where you come and we say ‘this is what’s interesting, come buy this,’” says Burns. “What happens is, people come in, they leave their mark, they influence our culture, and then that culture in turn is what we become…we’re just going to come in here and essentially give the template of what Mother Murphy’s is, and then Champaign can do their thing with it.” He encourages customers to “go down the rabbit hole” and see what they might find.
Says Walsh, “I can’t even imagine the hundreds of thousands of people who have wandered in and out of [the original store]. This is the spot that the next generation of people can wander in and out of, leave their mark, and hopefully come back in 5, 10, 15 years and say ‘that was me’.”
112 E University
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Su 12 to 5 p.m.