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Portrait of a Self Made Man: Uncle Mike

Uncle MikeThere are more than 38,000 permanent residents in State College, Pennsylvania. There are more than twice as many students that live part-time in University Park for undergraduate and graduate studies throughout the course of the year. In addition to all of this, who could forget the constant traffic that streams through this Centre County hot spot for sporting events, admissions visits, and to share in Penn State culture with peers? To say it briefly: there are tons of people living and working in our community.

Diversity is one of the greatest assets we have at a large, public university. What other university can boast giving degrees to the first African American in space, a writer for The Howard Stern Show, and the founder of Eat N’ Park? Smiley cookies aside, it’s easy to assume there are plenty of unique individuals walking alongside us on College Avenue every day.

Enter Michael “Uncle Mike” Hultberg. For those who are unfamiliar with this State College celebrity, he is the proud founder and current owner of Jamaica Junction, a head shop located on Pugh Street. To get up to speed, check out the Collegian’s article about the store’s opening a few years ago. Onward State had the opportunity to sit down with Uncle Mike over a hookah yesterday and learn some of his wisdom.

The conversation began about the store itself and how Mike came to create it. The owner originally worked in food service, but remarked that he hated his tenure there. He said that a friend had expressed interest in opening a head shop in State College, Pennsylvania – a small town that sparked little interest in Mike, a world traveler. One day, Mike decided his time had come and quit his job. He phoned his friend and began to pursue the business effort that would ultimately culminate in the Junction.

Smeal students would also be interested in his unorthodox, yet highly logical advertising techniques.  The Junction has been host to a number of evenings featuring free hookah and live music.  Many wonder why this would be smart.  Giving away his merchandise for free?  What’s the logic there?  Uncle Mike had this to say:

There’s not an ad I can put in a newspaper that would get me such a strong response that cheap.

Mike told us that the cost of a night’s worth of tobacco is negligible when considering the potential demographic he gets by doing so.

Kids don’t give a shit about an ad.  Where’s the music?[…]Where’s the party?  That’s what they’re asking.

By giving them these opportunities, he has tapped the young demographic and made a strong presence and great reputation for himself.  The Junction sponsored the Atlas Soundtrack party we attended last Friday and had us in the store talking to Mike less than 24 hours later – proof that his techniques are working.

He has also tapped into the Web 2.0 market by creating Facebook and MySpace accounts for Jamaica Junction (although he claims to be very technologically challenged).  They’re free and Mike loves the opportunities these utilities give small businesses like his.

In addition to these tips, Uncle Mike was willing to offer some of his business mantras.  While he wants to succeed, he’s willing to do it so that everyone around him does in the process.  “I like to play games where everyone wins”, speaking metaphorically about his practices.  He encourages any young entrepreneur to “look where there’s nothing there”.  The most interesting thing, he gave up all of his secrets for no fee.  This man is genuinely interested in helping everyone around him succeed – even if he’s only known them for a few hours.  In an almost zen-like fashion, he left us with one final sentiment before changing topics:

The less you want peoples’ money, the more willing they are to give it to you.

While it may not seem proper for Wall Street, Mike has clearly become an expert of his college town market.

Uncle Mike isn’t only a business man though.  He gave us some insight to his life.  The most interesting place he’s ever traveled to: Afghanistan.  The ability to “forget you’ve lived through the twentieth century” makes it the most bizarre on his list.  He visited in the 1980s after living in Jamaica for the latter half of the 1970s.  He even knew (Bob) Marley – before he was famous.  They apparently were neighbors on a strip of Jamaican beach property.

He’d bring over warm Red Stripes and head straight for the fridge and drink all of my cold Heinekens.

Something you wouldn’t expect to hear from a State College native.  Uncle Mike said that it’d be impossible for him to pick his favorite place in the world because “everywhere is so different” – first hand wisdom.

As he periodically left to help out a customer, he offered his advice to young people.  These small tips, while they may seem obvious at first, rarely cross our minds on a day to day basis.  He explained to us that he hangs around with college students because he’s become disenchanted with his peers.  He explained to us that getting old doesn’t make you a sour person – a common stereotype made by our Gen-Y selves.  He offers his rationale again:

They never did anything they wanted to do.  They only did what everyone else wanted them to do.

Mike lives by this slogan and his youthful spirit is testament to it.  It was impossible to not be brought up by his personality.

While this eulogy of sorts could continue on for a while, it is still a bit of disservice to Uncle Mike.  Within the weekend we at Onward State have known him, we feel lucky to have crossed paths with him and encourage everyone in State College to try and meet the man behind the head shop.  Both full of kindness and wisdom, he is a great confidant and friend.  To Mike and everyone at Jamaica Junction: thank you.

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