Whether the Habibi Sheesha Hookah Lounge on Main Street, near the University at Buffalo South Campus in Amherst, is a menace to the community depends upon who you ask.
The seemingly unobtrusive venue, nestled in between the Amherst Theatre and a Key Bank branch, was the scene of an early morning shooting Sunday in which two teenagers were wounded. That came as a surprise to a few international students at UB who live on Springville Avenue around the corner. They claimed to barely notice the lounge, its activities or its patrons.
“We don’t see or hear anything from here,” said one student. “We don’t even smell anything.”
However, an older neighbor who lives about a block away on Princeton Avenue said the behavior of the patrons outside the establishment makes him leery about walking to the supermarket in the neighboring University Plaza late at night.
“It’s a hangout for a lot of underage kids,” said the neighbor, who did not wish to be identified. “They’re all hanging out in front of the place. . . . I walk past the Key Bank and you see the broken liquor bottles and syringes on the ground.”
Desean Abraham, a UB student who lives in the neighborhood, said he recalled receiving email alerts from UB advising students about incidents that had taken place outside the lounge.
“We often get UB email alerts about robberies and dangerous mishaps in the parking lot. I don’t get those emails as often anymore. said Abraham.
Despite that, Abraham said he was an infrequent patron of the Habibi Sheesha Hookah Lounge during his freshman and sophomore years. He is now a senior.
“I’ve been in there,” Abraham said.
“It wasn’t too comfortable. It was loud. I didn’t really like some of the people coming there. My freshman year, I used to come here a lot. I enjoyed it. They had recently opened and it was relaxing and was, like, really cool and I would see, like, college students like me,” he said.
However, over time, Abraham said, the establishment began to attract fewer college students more patrons who appeared to be underage.
“It felt a little bit dangerous at times,” he said.
Early Sunday afternoon, there were no obvious signs that anything unsavory or unusual had taken place hours before, either inside or outside the hookah lounge. The business was closed until its scheduled reopening at 7 p.m. and heavily tinted windows of the storefront establishment obscured the view inside.
Various signs were affixed to the storefront windows, including one that listed the business’ hours of operation, which are from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. on weekends. Another sign, printed on white paper with black lettering, warned that only those 18 years old and older, and carrying valid, state-issued photo identification, such as a driver’s license would be allowed inside the lounge. A combination of a Social Security card and passport were also listed as acceptable if a driver’s license wasn’t available.
Still another sign on the window warns that fake ID, weapons, illicit drugs and weapons will be confiscated by the establishment’s security. Patrons also must agree to a search by security and are cautioned that there are 24-hour security cameras on the premises.
There also was a poster in the window announcing an after party following Rihanna’s March 23 concert at the First Niagara Center that was supposed to have featured an appearance by one of the pop singer’s official DJs at the hookah lounge.
Hookah lounges feature communal pneumatic water pipes, called hookahs, that are used for smoking or vaping flavored tobaccos. The practice has long been popular in the Middle East, and has become increasingly popular among millennials in the West. Generally, neither alcohol nor food is served at these establishments.
The Habibi Sheesha Lounge is owned by Amir Abbas, who also owns another establishment by the same name on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo. That lounge was ordered shut down by the city in January 2015 following reports of a series of gunshots that took place there. On Sunday, Amherst police said there were no plans to try to close down the establishment at 3550 Main St. Police had been called there prior to Sunday’s shootings, though it was not characterized as a perpetual occurrence.
Witnesses to Sunday’s shooting told police that it began with a fight inside the lounge that spilled into the parking lot, where several shots were fired.
Christopher Dargan, 18, of Buffalo was struck in the foot by a single gunshot, police said. He was treated at Erie County Medical Center and discharged.
Gebrial Shamburger, 19, also of Buffalo, was struck in the neck and was listed in “guarded” condition at ECMC, police said.