Some twenty-odd years ago Simeon Turner was an American teenager who’d ventured out upon a school trip to the United Kingdom, and who was trying to figure out what he could pick up as just the right souvenir, a physical object which might serve as an enduring anchor for his memories from the other side of the Atlantic after he returned home. He wanted something signally “British”, of course... and what, short of a knighthood from Her Majesty or a bulldog (of the actual canine variety, not the pipe) named “Winston” could have been more English a thing to pick up than a classic English briar? Of course, the gentle encouragement of a chaperoning teacher who happened to be a pipe man himself (oh, how times have changed, even for our generation) didn’t hurt any either. Like the old poem about a single horse-shoe nail changing the tide of a battle, in our personal lives, as in the history of man as whole, these little things can lead to big changes as time, and their influence and consequence, progresses onward.
As things played out, it was actually not until a few years later, post-graduation, that Simeon even got around to taking his teacher’s advice that he might actually enjoy smoking the thing. (“Enjoy” being the key word – he did try the pipe once, while he was still in the UK, but as with many of us the results of his first foray were less than auspicious.) With time and patience, however, Simeon came upon the learning of how to make smoking a pipe a pleasing and satisfying experience. Since it’s a familiar progression, you can probably guess where this next led: Simeon, having learned to enjoy the pipe, eventually got it into his head that he might enjoy making his own, as well. By this time he had become a high school teacher himself, and no doubt the ready access to the school’s fully-equipped wood shop seemed fortuitous. Unfortunately, Simeon was an English teacher, and not a shop teacher, and once again the results of his initial, inexperienced efforts were, to say the least, mixed (and no doubt once again quite familiar to many who are reading this).
There’s an old Japanese tale about a young man who wished to avenge his father, and so traveled to the home of a great sword-fighting master, intent to become a formidable swordsman himself. The master left the young fellow waiting for months, through day and night, sun and storm, before even taking him in - at which point he set the lad to fetching heavy pales of water, every day, for over a year. When the young man finally began pestering him again, the master sent him to chopping wood – for three years. At that point the young man questioned the master again, wondering if he was ever going to be taught the old man’s art at all. At that point, at last, the old man handed him a sword and commanded him to cut a target. And the younger man did – landing a powerful blow with speed and precision, and as naturally as he might have slapped the target with his own hand. It was that at that point that the old man accepted the younger as a student who might even begin to be taught his techniques, including the most important of all – those of how to defend against another man’s cuts.
The lesson that old story was meant to illustrate was that by leaving the young man to wait, the old master tested his dedication and patience, that by setting him to fetch water, he built his strength and endurance, the physical foundation upon which fighting skill would rely, and that by ordering him to chop wood, he gave the young man the chance to teach himself how to use a tool (and a weapon is, fundamentally, a tool) as an extension of his own body, allowing it to do the work it was designed to do with one’s own strength and coordination acting simply and subconsciously to control and stabilize its path.
Simeon isn’t some magical prodigy who picked up a block of briar and, bam, turned a spot-on beauty of a stummel the very first time– I can’t think of any pipemakers who are, even amongst the most renowned. Those very, very few who can claim to have made a pipe that was so much as “passingly good” from the very beginning are also those who happened to already have had years of experience in other fields of design and craftsmanship. It takes a lot of work, and patience, to learn how to make something not only beautifully, but even properly, by hand. And it’s the very willingness to put work and patience into practice, and to listen to any established artisan who will lend him an ear and a bit of advice, that Simeon does show, and he does so to a degree that’s hard to come by. When we first heard Simeon had won the Most Improved Pipemaker Award at last year’s West Coast show, and that he had sought out and studied under Jeff Gracik in order to learn anything he could from the artisan behind J. Alan pipes, it was a good sign. Like professional talent scouts, we picked Turner pipes up not just on what we saw was already there, but, just as importantly, the potential we saw in their creator’s attitude and spirit.
My wife is from Russia, and I got the chance to read her "Traveling to the United States" handbook when we first met in 2008. I found it entertaining how accurately it illustrated the American inclination for chit-chat. Frankly, we're nosy.
"Americans can be very friendly, but are generally very curious about other people's affairs. When you first meet an American, they may ignore you, but if you find yourself in a cab, on a plane, or sitting with them for any extended period of time, they will start asking you a lot of personal questions."
"What is your name?" "Where are you from?" "What kind of work do you do?" "How long are you visiting?" "Do you have any brothers or sisters?" "Where did you go to school?" "Do you like it here?" "What do you do after work?" "Tell me more about your job."
To us, this seems like perfectly normal, innocent conversation. To others around the globe, we can't mind our own business. I have noticed that people frequently ask about my profession, but they rarely stay engaged for the answer.
We pipemakers sometimes have difficulty relating our craft. We make pipes, sure, but this process can be described in a variety of ways. While some folks are generally curious, the majority of people ask just to ask. I find it difficult to explain what briar is, how stems are made, how pipes are priced, or describe different shapes and creativity, without noticing that the person who asked 1) doesn't really care. 2) can't follow what I'm describing. Fortunately, there are those rare encounters...
When I was at the dentist office a few weeks ago, my dentist had to grind down part of a filling that was too high. A really nice guy, he asked me about my personal life to make me more comfortable. "Well....I work for Smokingpipes.com, an internet source for pipes, tobaccos, and cigars. I also make pipes at my workshop at home." (He got a more direct answer than some people. If a nosy neighbors asks me what I do, and I get a bad vibe, I just tell them I make dollhouse furniture. No more questions after that.) My dentist is a cool guy, but I could tell he was struggling when I went more in-depth. Looking over at a poster, I mentioned that briar is like a tooth, only upside down. He became more interested.
"On a tooth, the outside is the hardest, nicest area. Picture a briar cutter taking a bowling-ball-sized thing out of the ground and cutting it in half. The outside is good, but the inside is typically not used for pipes. When I get a block of wood, it has plateau - the bark - on it, and when I start carving, at times this bark can be deep. Sometimes it goes away, and sometimes it shows up on the sides of the pipe. Think of these sandpits as 'cavities'. Some pipe makers and factories fill these, just like you filled my tooth. Heck, a lot of us even use scrapers and little rotary tools like you do to shape some areas of the pipe."
As I was showing him pictures of blocks and finished pieces, he seemed excited, and even brought in another dentist to see them. "Teeth have growth rings and 'grain' just like those blocks have!" he said. I found that really interesting; he was teaching me about teeth as much as I was teaching him about briar. I enjoyed explaining my profession to him, in a back-and-forth conversation. The only disappointment: I learned he did not smoke a pipe.
To quote one of the coolest and most unusual comments I've ever heard: "Man, those pipes are so cool. If this was my own private practice, I would totally trade you dental work for one of those pipes!"
If you’ve been smoking pipes, buying pipes, collecting pipes, or even just looking at pipes over the last ten years, chances are you’re already pretty familiar with the work of American carver Michael Lindner. You may even be familiar with his story. Way back in 2000, Michael got his hands on a lathe in order to ease the restoring and selling of estate pipes through The Piperack, the online pipe retailer he’d established only three years prior. Fast forward a dozen years and Michael is a staple in the pipe world, a fixture at the Chicagoland and Richmond pipes shows, and a well-known, respected pipe maker.
I thought it would be a lot of fun to pick Michael’s brain under the pretense of sharing it with our readers. Thankfully he consented and allowed me to do so!
I think most people figure that you got into pipe making on account of having already established The Pipe Rack; pipe retailing and repairs go hand in hand. So... how did you get into the business of selling pipes? Was it just a matter of having been a collector with too many pipes?
Well, I think the opportunity just kind of presented itself to me. I already was in business for myself; I had owned a janitorial and maintenance company for a number of years and I saw an opportunity to make enough money to make my pipe collecting hobby self-sustaining. Ebay had been around for only a couple years, and I would often buy a group of pipes there, clean them up, keep one or two and then sell off the rest. I quickly realized that there was a solid business plan there if done in volume, and done correctly. At the time, honestly there weren't many "professional" websites for pipes, running it as a legitimate business. So I developed the model. Prior to The Piperack, there weren't any websites doing weekly updates, or restoring their pipes so that they showed up ready to pack and light, or taking credit cards, or giving detailed descriptions, or applying a points rating system to give people an idea of condition. There was PCCA, but they were mainly unsmoked Castellos with the occasional estate pipe collection. So it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage of this new selling platform (the internet) and applying a proper business framework to it.
Do you still actively collect pipes? What's your prized pipe?
Actually, no not really. I have a motley bunch of pipes, some were gifts, some were the first pipes I smoked. I have a lot of pipes that I couldn't sell on The Piperack - you know, Dunhills with cracked bowls and that kind of thing. They're great smokers, by the way. And of course I have some of my own pipes. I suppose my most prized pipe would be a 1948 patent Sasieni Four Dot that was one of the first pipes I ever had. But really, once you start selling them and especially start making them, the idea of a favorite pipe just kind of goes away. ALL the pipes I make are my favorite pipe, for that day. Some I like more than others, but they are all special to me.
How many pipes did you have to make before you were satisfied that it was something you should keep doing? At what point did you think "Yeah, this is what I'm supposed to be doing?"
Pipe making came very intuitively to me; after the first pipe I made, I decided to pursue it professionally. I mean, a week after I made my first pipe, I had stamps for the nomenclature. It may seem odd or overly confident to the casual observer, but those who know me well weren't surprised at all. I have a tendency to immerse myself in something and, being a perfectionist, really work toward honing my craft. But knowing the path and walking the path are two different things, and it did take me a little while to get my production to the point where I could say I was happy with it. I think the first pipe I sold was my 15th pipe, or something like that. But frankly looking back on these early pieces (I still have pipe 1, 3, 5, 6, 8 and a few others) I can see that I was not as polished as I would have liked. Certainly though, within six months or so I had really polished things up, and within a year I had developed the basic Lindner pipe you see today with regard to all the details (button, tenon, fit and finish, et cetera). Of course I am still learning and will be for the rest of my career but it's all about fine-tuning at this point, and occasionally exploring new techniques.
You're as seriously adept as any American carver when it comes to producing Danish influenced designs, but you seem to create plenty of classic, English inspired shapes as well. Is that a conscious effort? What kind of shaping preferences do you have as a maker?
In my opinion, the classics are really where you develop your skill as a pipe maker, because the rules for each shape are so rigid. Once you learn the shapes, you can start experimenting with them, which leads to developing your own style as well as crossover into new shape interpretations. And the lessons you learn from the classics (proportion, cut, balance, proper engineering, et cetera) are necessary in order to create art shapes.
Besides, I love the classics. I started my collection with Sasienis, and over the years have had literally thousands of Dunhills, Barlings, Ashtons, Sasienis, and so on, through my hands. Classics are what I smoke today. I have an immense appreciation and respect for what the French and English contributed to pipe design, and I try to emulate that today in the pipes I make (albeit at a much higher level with regard to engineering and fit & finish).
So, yes, it's a conscious effort on my part. There are collectors who only go after my art shapes, and there are those who only pursue my classics. By doing both styles well, I feel I can serve the needs and desires of more people. Not to mention that making a billiard versus making a blowfish use different parts of your brain; by making both classics and art shapes, I never get bored with what I'm doing and it helps me stay balanced. I wouldn't have it any other way.
What's been the most surprising aspect of being a professional pipe maker? What's made you reel back and think "this never would have happened if I were still doing something else"?
Hmm, that's really a tough question. I suppose the realization that, and this is a bit tongue-in-cheek, that I'm a "world famous artist". When I was younger, I was quite active [in] painting and drawing and wanted to someday make my living as an artist. And while I consider myself more of an artisan craftsman rather than an artist, it did kind of hit me a few years ago that things I created are in collections around the world, are cherished (I hope) by those who own them and use them, and that in a way, my childhood dream did come true. I really don't think that would have happened any other way; I wasn't that good of a painter or illustrator. It's very humbling to think about how fortunate I am to be able to do what I love and to affect so many people.
As many of you know, last weekend we moved our entire shipping and receiving operation out of four rooms spread across two buildings into one 3,500 sq ft space a little down the hill from our other buildings. Our goal was to have absolutely zero service disruption. This required considerable planning. Everything had to be laid out and organized before a single tin of tobacco would move.
As a quick overview, our main building has three floors and about 5,500 sq. ft. We moved into this space in early 2005, with the store and shipping on the bottom floor, and offices on the top two floors. Our building is surrounded on two sides by a commercial complex with various offices and small shops. Immediately across the parking lot, a building came available and we snatched it up in mid-2009, moving our shipping department, plus customer service and a couple of other offices over there (store, some shipping area, offices, photography studio and pipe restoration workshop remained in the main building). After another two years, our new shipping space was splitting at the seams. The whole company had grown, but especially in those areas that require warehouse space: pipe tobacco and accessories. We talked to our landlord for the smaller building and asked what he had available. The first thing he showed us just wasn't going to work; it was too small and oddly located for freight pickups and dropoffs. Then he had an idea. The end/basement of his largest building contained nothing but his wife's decades worth of accumulated junk (I hope you don't read this, Miss Virginia). We couldn't even get in there past the loading door to look at it properly. I cannot properly articulate how much junk there was, nor quite how junky it was. Everything from a dozen early 1990s vintage computers to thousands of plaster molds to a kid's disney themed play car were in there. Along with displays for flooring, displays of fabric, assorted furniture (including some church pews), a half-dozen aging vacuum cleaners, and about ten ceiling fans. Really, it was what my garage would look like without my wife's intervention. But seven times the size...
It took them three weeks to empty it, but we knew we'd made the right call once we could get in there. It was the perfect space for us. And, instead of picking up 4-6,000 sq feet off-site, it was just a few hundred feet from the building, an easy two or three minute walk. We got a golf cart (which doesn't yet have the Smokingpipes.com logo spinners installed) for moving stuff back and forth. Once it was empty, we went to work. UPS Freight dropped off scarily large stacks of metal shelving, a pallet jack, roller-coveyors and assorted other warehouse goodies. Our preferred builder/handyman Billy Harrelson then went to work with his crew to do the upfit. Two weeks later (one of which was while I was in Chicago for the show), everything was in place. With rigorous use of database queries and excel, Tommy, Susan and I managed to layout the warehouse for optimal picking and packing speed, with higher volume items closer to the central packaging area. We then went to work labeling every single slot that a product (tinned or bulk tobacco or accessory) might inhabit: some 1,500 of them (pipes and cigars remain, as always, in the main building).
On Sunday (the only day of the week that shipping is closed), the entire company (save Mark, who was on vacation), some 25 people, showed up to help move everything. Much to our surprise, most of the work only took about three hours. About half of us stayed on to work out little details and kinks, but we pretty much had it knocked out by noon. By three, it was just five of us left. By four, we were done, complete with running four packages through the whole process to make sure we hadn't forgotten anything and that everything was working. Not one single package was delayed due to the move; everything worked perfectly when shipping resumed Monday morning (well, almost everything).
Bobby Altmann, our staff photographer, snapped a few photos of the work on that Sunday, whenever he wasn't busy shelving tobacco.
Last week music lost a living legend and I lost a hometown hero. Pinetop Perkins, a blues pianist legendary of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, passed away at his home in Austin, Texas. Willie Perkins was born on July 7, 1913, in a
small town with a rich blues heritage called, Belzoni, Mississippi. Belzoni is also the town where I grew up. There I was introduced to the blues culture of the Mississippi Delta region and Pinetop. Perkins began playing blues in the
late 1920s. He is regarded as one of the best and most enduring pianist in the blues genre. He was originally a guitar player and switched to the piano primarily because it was louder than a guitar (this was before the electric guitar
was invented). However, he also suffered an injury to his left arm. The injury made it difficult for him to fret the guitar, but not the piano.
During the 1930's and 1940's, he mainly played around the Mississippi Delta, including a three-year stint with Sonny Boy Williamson on the King Biscuit Time radio show on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas. Then in the 1950s, he worked
with musicians such as B.B. King and Earl Hooker on Sun Records in Memphis (1953) “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie”.
I admit that if I stopped here, this would be an impressive resume. However, we have forty years or more to go. Pinetop played piano for the Muddy Waters band for over ten years taking the place of Otis Spann in 1969 (yet another
musician with Belzoni roots). He backed Muddy Waters from 1969 to 1980 touring and playing keys in
the band, and in 1980 he and several members left to start a new group (Legendary Blues Band).
He had a wonderful personality and a familial demeanor. For instance, one of my favorite quotes is when he told the New York Times, “I remember the days when I played at chicken fights and your only pay was the dead chicken... now I
can’t retire even if I want to. Everybody’s calling me.” According to his biography, "the irony of Pinetop’s career is that he didn’t blossom as a headliner until his eighth decade." That just goes to show it is never too late. Mr.
Perkins and John Lee Hooker did a cameo in the Blues Brothers movie. They are outside Aretha's Soul Food Cafe. John Lee Hooker says, “...that is a song called Boom Boom I wrote in the 50’s.” Pinetop’s jumps up to say, “Naw you didn’t!
Naw you didn't! Naw you didn't!"
Other achievements and awards include:
- National Heritage Fellowship, from the National Endowment of the Arts (2000).
- Piano Blues, directed by Clint Eastwood for the Martin Scorsese PBS series, The Blues, featured Mr. Perkins.
- He won the Blues Music Award for best blues piano so many consecutive years that in 2003 he was retired from the running. The award was renamed the Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year. My good friend Eden Brent won and
accepted the award from Mr. Perkins in person last year. (2010)
- He accepted a well deserved Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2005 and Pinetop won Best Traditional Blues CD for Joined at the Hip Grammy in 2010 for his work with Willie "Big Eyes" Smith.
In addition to live shows and session work Pinetop Perkins has a large selection of solo recordings. Here are just a few:
- After Hours
- On Top
- Portrait of a Delta Bluesman
- Live Top
- Eye to Eye
- Born in the Delta
- Legends (with Hubert Sumlin)
- Live at 85! (with George Kilby Jr)
- All Star Blues Jam (with Bob Margolin)
- Ladies Man
- Joined At the Hip (with Willie "Big Eyes" Smith)
Best Traditional Blues Album for his collaboration on the “Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas
The Pinetop Perkins Foundation
The Pinetop Perkins Foundation is a tax-exempt non-profit organization. Its mission is to provide encouragement and support for youth and young people at the beginning of their musical career; and help provide care and safety for
elderly musicians at the twilight of their career.
I have been a little sad this week - and I guess that is why they call it the blues.
Therefore, here is a tribute to Pinetop Perkins, a blues legend and one of my hometown heroes.
Willie “Pinetop” Perkins
July 7, 1913 - March 21, 2011 at age 97.
Here is Pinetop with BB King doing a song called Down in Mississippi that mentions Belzoni.
In addition to Perkins and Spann, other blues artists who were born in or near Belzoni or who lived there include Denise LaSalle, Boyd Gilmore, Eddie Burns, Paul “Wine” Jones, Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2, and Elmore James.
Blue and yellow lights penetrate drifting whorls of pipe smoke suspended in silence. I can feel the audience’s anticipation. A tall man takes the microphone and announces, "Memphis - the moment you have waited for - Clarence Gatemouth Brown." The band kicks off a swing tune and Gatemouth saunters onto the stage, smoking a pipe and wearing western garb. He's in his seventies, with his custom Gibson Firebird guitar hanging over his shoulder. He begins to play swing lines as a horn player would, but on his guitar. As the set continues, Gatemouth moves from Texas swing, to a bluegrass fiddle tune on the viola. I really enjoy an eclectic set list and Brown always delivers. A voice like gravel mixed with molasses comes from the lean old music veteran. It's more powerful live than any recording can capture.
Throughout his career, Clarence Brown cleared hurdles and broke the rules of the music business as a matter of course. Brown loved the blues and played them well. However, he did not like the classification of "blues musician", or even "bluesman". He preferred no label at all, stating that he plays, “American and world music, Texas style.” He was born in Louisiana and his family moved to Texas when he was young. Although T-Bone Walker influenced Gatemouth, his music was not limited to blues. It was eclectic mix of Cajun, blues, country, rhythm & blues, and jazz genres. He approached classical style as well as roots and contemporary music. Perhaps he would be better known if he had chosen a less diverse repertoire. However, his influence on music is evident, and his criticism on musicians is harsh. He spoke his mind. For instance, when critiquing blues musicians Gatemouth said, "They were just coppin’ off of [T-bone Walker]. Now, when I first started I played a couple of T-Bone’s licks…I got away from that and I developed my own style…I can play stuff now that there’s no way in the world that B.B. King or any of those other guys can play…they’re all friends of mine, and they’ll admit they can’t play it.” He commented on the music scene of New Orleans in the1970's stating, "Everybody’s trying to sound like each other and they’re doing a damn good job of it. But I don’t want to be associated with it.”
The Gatemouth brown Philosophy:
Gatemouth played numerous instruments, including the guitar, viola, mandolin, drums, and harmonica. He began playing drums in his teens, and learned to play the fiddle and mandolin by age ten. The swing music he played in his youth influenced the way he approached other instruments. This is around the time he received the moniker "Gatemouth". I have heard a few accounts that differ on who gave him the nickname. However, the reason for his nickname is the same in all accounts. Here is the story in Gatemouth's own words: When asked who gave him the nickname he said, "The kids, actually… we used to have to go in Chapel and sing these spiritual songs before we would go to class. The PA system went out and when it did, I kept singing over the chorus. I was the lead singer. And when we finished the teacher said, "Brown, you don't need no microphone, you've got a voice like a gate." And the kids started saying "Gatemouth" and, man, I got mad a while, but the hotter I got the more they would call me that. So I got stuck with it and just worked with it to my advantage."
In addition to his nickname and signature western clothing, Gatemouth was known to be a pipe smoker. Several of his album covers have pictures of him smoking a pipe. When I lived in Dallas, I had many talks with Sam Myers (blues singer and harmonica player). In one conversation, we discussed Brown's versatile style and the fact that he enjoyed to smoke a pipe. Sam recalled a story from the 1940’s wherein Gatemouth stole a T-bone Walker show. Walter was feeling ill and dropped his guitar by accident. Gatemouth took the opportunity to grab the guitar and play. Sam said, “The crowd loved it. They started throwing money at Gatemouth. T-bone was not happy about it at all!” Gatemouth would, as a rule, sit at shows smoking his pipe with his custom blended pipe tobacco. Sam also told me that if he could not smoke - he would not do the performance. Adam recalled one particular interview he had seen with Gatemouth. When asked about smoke-free venues, Gatemouth told them sternly if he could not enjoy his pipe, he would play elsewhere - no smoke, no show.
Throughout his career, Gatemouth continued to redefine himself. For instance, while in Nashville in the early 1960's he made several appearances on the TV program Hee Haw, and recorded a series of country singles. He also hosted an R&B television show in Nashville called The Beat. In 1979, he and country guitarist Roy Clark recorded "Makin' Music," an album of blues and country songs that includes a cover of the Duke Ellington classic "Take the A-Train." In the late 1960's Mr. Brown was a Sheriff in New Mexico. Talk about breaking barriers!
His discography is too large to list in this forum, but here are a few of my favorite Gatemouth albums:
Alright Again, 1982. Grammy Award/ Best Traditional Blues Album
Pressure Cooker, 1986. Grammy nomination for Best Blues Recording (my favorite blues label- Alligator Records)
Gate Swings, 1997, Produced by Jim Bateman and John Snyder.
He played fiddle and guitar on Professor Longhair’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Gumbo album. (1974)
In addition to countless recordings, other credits include eight W.C. Handy Awards, and induction into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1999. Gatemouth influenced numerous guitar players such as Albert Collins, J.J Cale, Guitar Slim, Roy Buchanan, Johnny Copeland, and countless others. Frank Zappa named him his all-time favorite guitarist and it has been suggested that "Okie Dokie Stomp" should be the new Texas National Anthem.
Here is a video of Gatemouth Brown and Roy Clark on the TV show Austin City Limits. They are doing a cover of a Louis Jordan - Fleecie Moore song called "Caldonia":
Have a listen, and a bowl in honor of Clarence Gatemouth Brown… and pack a custom blend.
Albert King, (Albert Nelson) was born in the central region of Mississippi called the Delta. The region is saturated with blues heritage and Albert King is a pioneer of modern music. In addition to being hailed the "King of the Blues" - He was a pipe smoker. The bluesman was often seen smoking a pipe and playing a Gibson Flying V guitar (strung right-handed but played left-handed). He named the electric guitar Lucy, and she became his signature instrument.
His influence flows into present day through Blues, R&B, and Rock genres. It is apparent that Jimi Hendrix was influenced by Albert King. Jimi used a right handed guitar flipped over and played left handed. Even Hip-hop owes a toast to Albert King, with samples from his recordings used by Biz Markie, Wu-Tang Clan and Public Enemy.
While on the west coast for the most recent pipe show held in Las Vegas, Sykes had the opportunity to sit down with Rick Newcombe to talk about the release of the sixth edition of his popular book 'In Search of Pipe Dreams'. Among other things, Rick is an avid pipe collector, having written more than his fair share of articles for 'Pipe & Tobacco Magazine' as well as a recognizable personality in the general pipe community. Here he talks about the latest edition of his book and the inevitability of its most recent colorized edition which hits retailers today.
In 1919, United States President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11th as a holiday, Armistice Day. In 1938 Armistice Day became a legal holiday. And in 1954 Congress amended the name, replacing Armistice with Veterans, and it has been know as Veterans Day since.
When I brought up the idea of posting a blog entry on Veterans Day at our managers meeting, everyone thought it was a good idea. And so over the past two weeks or so I have been thinking on what to write about. My thoughts came clear yesterday morning. I won’t keep you long, but I thought it important to recognize this day.
I don’t remember the date or the name. I just remember standing at attention in the hot South Carolina sun for a retirement and retreat ceremony at Shaw Air Force Base. We were honoring a career officer who was retiring after 33 years of service. Thirty-three years, I thought … now that’s dedication.
As the Master of Ceremonies read word after word about this decorated officer, I began to sweat. And later as the sounds of retreat played and the flag was lowered, I began to cry. There’s nothing quite like standing in formation, at attention, with silent tears streaming down your face in the hot setting sun. It was a moving experience for me that day.
So today we say ‘thank you’ to our U.S. military veterans. Thank you for your time in service. Thank you for your dedication, your sacrifices and your service for our country. Today we remember you. Today we honor you.
‘Freedom is not free’, I say. Blood, sweat and tears have been shed for our freedom. So if you know a veteran, call them up today. Shake their hand. Sit and talk for a while. And you will hear the voice of dedication, sacrifice and service.
Betrand Russell. He was a mathematician, philosopher, logician, and pipe smoking Nobel Prize Winner. You've probably heard of him. He lived to be 97. Here, briefly, he shares with us an anecdote concerning himself and his pipe.
Hello to all of our Smokingpipes.com family!!!! It’s me, Mark from Customer Service. I have to tell you I am probably one of the worst people to have been asked to sit down and write about something, but here I go, listening to my all time favorite rocker chick, P!nk. Well, she maybe my favorite of today’s female singers; we can’t forget the ‘Goddesses of Rock’ Stevie Nicks and Pat Benatar. Yes, I am an 80s rocker that refuses to leave the era. P!nk would have been cool then too.
Hmm… Maybe the obsession comes from the fact that, being from Southern New Jersey, she’s from right outside of Philly. I’m not kidding! When she was supposed to be divorcing Carey Hart, I wanted to go to Doylestown, PA to see if she went to visit her mom. But then they got back together and I was depressed for weeks. Of course, I was still living up north then. It would have been an interesting road trip from where I live now in North Myrtle Beach, SC. I guess I have it pretty good here, though: I live a block from the beach and work at the largest pipe tobacco E-tailer in the world. Not bad for a Jersey boy from the sticks.
Okay, onto the real reason for this. Today I am going to talk about what is known as “exceptions” in our order system. For all of you reading this, that means we are out of stock on something. Now, as any of you who have had the misfortune of ordering something that we are out of stock on know, you usually get an email or phone call from me informing you that we are out of stock and when, approximately, it will be back in. Occasionally, due to vendor back orders, we really don’t know when to expect it. (Hint: Certain blends from overseas that surprise us upon delivery only every six months or so.) My answer to this is “Whaddaya want from me?” Oh sorry, off track again. (That would be an Adam Lambert song that P!nk wrote.)
Most times, the majority of our out of stock items do come in within a week or so and we ship the orders out right away for you. There are those occasions where it will take up to a month for certain things, but our Purchasing Manager, Susan (AKA my work wife) does her best to help get them stocked in a timely manner. I usually blow up Susan’s phone extension or her email with questions about when something is coming back. “Is that on back order? Any word on this? Did we hear back on that?” Luckily Susan and I are friends as well, so instead of beating me with a branch from the huge oak tree outside the building, she helps me.
So, dear customers, please know that whenever we are out of stock on something, we are doing our best to get the items in and out to you. P!nk would be proud. Until next time!
Having the office in Little River, South Carolina makes the trip to the Richmond Pipe Show easy. Normally, we have to pack all necessities and ship them days in advance. Then we hop on a plane and head to the show.
Richmond, on the other hand, is close enough that we can drive. Since I own the largest land assault vehicle in the company, I have had the pleasure of gathering part of the entourage and driving to Virginia for the last two years. The drive up has been the same. Everyone excited about the show, the people we will see and the work we have to do. The drive home however was a little different this year.
I started the drive home with Brian Levine as my co-pilot. (Despite what you may think, he did do a great job.) Adam Davidson, Ted Swearingen and Jeff Gracik filled up the second row. Supplies for the show occupied the space behind them. We met up with Sykes and his passengers in Rocky Mount, North Carolina for a nice dinner before finishing the trip home. This is when the ride deviated from last year.
After being on the road for a while, statements like “Use the shovel on him” and “Pick up the axe” along with beeps and bleeps started coming from the back seat. The “boys” were playing adventure games on someone’s smart phone. For a second I thought my seven and nine year olds where in the truck. Miles upon miles passed before the back seat became utterly quiet. Brian turned around to see what happened. The picture says it all…
Here we are, on the eve of the Richmond CORPS show, hosting a small get together of friends, family, and special guests. We've had a wholesome supper of 'Southern' food and for dessert Jeff made peach cobbler. Excitement is in the air. We're passing the time telling stories and talking about pipes. Tokutomi has even dusted off his guitar for the occasion.
Tokutomi warms up his guitar in the bulk tobacco room.
Brian plays with his strange, pipe smoking brown bear.
September 2nd. Nine days ago, my wife and I moved to South Carolina from California. We drove
for 2,790 miles (or what Google called 46 hours) over a period of 4.5 days. Our soundtrack consisted
largely of the Beatles, having chosen to forego boxing and loading into the moving truck such LPs as
“Help”, “The White Album”, “Sgt. Pepper’s”, and “Magical Mystery Tour”. We plunked along to this
soundtrack at 55mph in 14 hour intervals. Doing double duty both hauling our personal clutter and
pulling our Jetta, the moving truck burned through $800 in gas before it was over. We slept in
cheap, seedy motels along America’s less favored Main Street, Interstate-40, without any sense of the
fashionable irony for which our generation is known. We jackknifed the hitch in Texas. We lost
Mable, our cat, in a truck-stop in Oklahoma. On the road we beheld deserts, mountains, swamps and
forests. At a tortured pace, we made our way along the vast country.
In early July, Sykes Wilford, President and Founder of Smokingpipes.com invited me out to their
company headquarters in Little River, South Carolina, to see if I might be well-suited for a career
in pipes and tobacco. Specifically, he was looking for an individual with a passion for both pipes
and writing, yet a strong sales background and possibly some experience in staff management was all
but a requisite as well. Fortunately for both of us, I met his criteria.
Initially, we’d started discussing such an employment opportunity back in May, but I never let the
possibility get me too excited. Then he offered to fly me out. He even said he’d pay for my hotel.
When Sykes met me at the airport the night I flew into South Carolina, I was immediately impressed
with his firm handshake and eager grin. As he chauffeured me to the hotel, Sykes shared freely his
ideas concerning the future of the company, his vision of the big picture, and what a job for me
would look like if there was one to offer. As much as he wanted someone to be
involved in high-touch sales, he also wanted to bring in someone who could get heavily into the
writing side of things. He really wanted to get their blog going. The opportunities suggested by
his ideas had me excited.
The following day, and after eight hours of exploring the Smokingpipes facility, I’d handled more
pipes than I had ever before seen. They’ve thousands of pipes from some of the most reputable
manufactures and talented craftsmen around the world tucked away into hundreds of shelves spread
throughout every room in both of their buildings. I was even privileged enough to smoke a bowl of
Brian Levine’s secret-stash of eight year old Luxury Twist Flake from a Hiroyuki Tokutomi pipe, which
I suppose I could have brought back to California had I available the $6,000 in cash. Thus far, it
had been a winning day for this humble pipe smoker.
Then, during a tense dinner at a local Thai food restaurant, Sykes made me the offer.
“We think you should come work for us.” He had said, doing his best to hide a knowing smile behind
a straight face. Obviously, I agreed. After dinner, Brian gave me a Rocky Patel cigar which I
puffed victoriously. We hammered out a time frame for my debut. I would start on September 6th.
That’s now four days away.
Shelly and I have yet to unpack a thing.
September 6th. It’s day one at my new pipe dream job. I’m very over-dressed. Note to self:
jeans to work - OK. Very awesome.
September 9th. Sykes calls me into his office and asks that I start thinking about my first blog
entry. “Write about getting out here,” he suggests, and so I will.
September 22nd. This is my third week at Smokingpipes.com and my fourth week as a Southerner. I
could tell a story about my time here as filled with surprise and expectations defied, but that’s
just not the truth. The real truth of the matter is that being here, working here doing all this;
it’s exactly what I imagined it to be. From the moment I sat down to write a resume that could have
been read just as easily as it could have been thrown in the trash, I had a feeling that something
important was about to happen to me. I had a feeling that a real career with Smokingpipes.com would
be one of those rare dreams that manifest. And it’s been just that.
So here I sit, behind a new desk, at a new computer, at my new, no-longer-just-a-dream job as
Sales Manager for Smokingpipes.com, making a livelihood writing things like this for your reading
pleasure. A man can smoke his pipe all day long at my new job and, yes, right now I’m wearing jeans
and a t-shirt. Thank God for good tobacco, and don’t let anyone tell you it does you no good.
Today is July 8th. After a couple of months of discourse with the heads of Smokingpipes.com, they’ve arranged for me to fly out to Little River, South Carolina, to see if I might like working here. I suspect, just as true, they’re wondering if they might like having me work for them.
It’s 11:30 p.m. and after a five-hour flight I’m just settling down at the hotel that they’ve been kind enough to put me up in. Immediately, besides obvious topographical distinctions, South Carolina is remarkably different from California. A random pedestrian waved at me as I was finding my way out of the airport. The front clerk at the hotel didn’t ask to see my ID when I checked in. In the elevator, strangers talked to me in a strange dialect. And yes, it is very humid. Very humid. I’d heard people talk about how muggy the South could be, but I wasn’t ready for the real experience. Having spent my entire life in a climate as dry as California I don’t think there was any way I could have been.
I’ve just made a quick call to my wife Shelly, just to let her know that I’ve arrived.
July 9th. Last night I only slept four hours because a thunderstorm startled me out of bed obnoxiously early. The locals tell me that an early morning storm of rain, lightning and thunder is a normal occurrence during this time of year; this is summer weather out here. Fortunately, I only have a short distance to walk from the hotel to Low Country Pipe & Cigar, the brick-and-mortar tobacco emporium where Smokingpipes.com has made their headquarters.
As I reach the broad, Edwardian-era brick building, I work diligently to straighten up my suit before swallowing the nervous lump in my throat. Opening the side-door (to which I’d been referred prior), I find a warm reception and a round of introductions by the few staff that make it to the office before 10 a.m. on any given Friday. While I wait for Sykes Wilford and Brian Levine to show, I help myself to a cup of fresh coffee that’s kept readily available around here and pack a bowl of Pembroke into the Dunhill I’m travelling with. The tart coffee and the creamy flavor of cognac and latakia helps to keep muzzled my frenzied nerves.
Their work space is relaxed and inviting. The offices are soft lit with 70 watt bulbs rather than the usual, awful overheard fluorescents. The walls are dressed in moss green with soft brown crown moulding and the floors are hardwood instead of the universal dingy gray indoor/outdoor carpet. The music of Stevie Ray Vaughan is issued softly from some hidden stereo speaker. Alyson and I strike up a conversation about her cats. What a pleasant first impression…
I don’t have to wait too long before Sykes arrives. When we sit down to chat I find I’m nervous all over again. However, his casual demeanor and tremendous laugh go a long way to put me at ease as he quips effortlessly, sharing anecdotes from the ten year history of the company, as well as his schooling and familial background.
“Ready for a tour?” he asks eventually, smiling generously.
Although I don’t say it, I’ve been waiting to take a good long look around this place for a great long while.
After I’ve spent the day “getting a feel for things”, playing with pipes I’ll never afford, watching the staff work and share ideas, and glimpsing some of the fundamental mechanics of an enterprise that has, until now, only existed in my imagination, I realize my intuition is ultimately confirmed: the whole operation is incredibly fantastic and I have to find my way here. The sense of team and purpose can be discerned in their every endeavor, their every update, their every newsletter; everyone loves what they do and is proud to be here. To be surrounded by this kind of talent and passion (and this many pipes!) is a royal opportunity.
Sykes has invited me to dinner. Brian will be there too. I get the feeling that this dinner will be one of those with expensive food sandwiched on the outsides and either really good news or really bad news stuffed in the middle. Obviously, I’m now eagerly hoping for the former.
My great-great grandfather Buck and his grandfather
It is May 15th. I notice for the first time on the Smokingpipes.com website a link: Work For Us. Literally and figuratively, this is a pipe dream. Nevertheless, grinning stupidly, I mention the discovery to my wife. For the next five days she lovingly pesters me to produce a resume.
May 20th. After three days of writing, formatting, and tinkering, I’ve finally finished a worthy resume. I’ll wait until Monday to email the thing, I decide. Monday is the best day to send a resume.
Monday, May 23rd. After several hours of determining how to convert my resume “.wps” doc into a coherent and stylized html email, I’ve sent into cyberspace my plea for gainful employment many hours later than I would have preferred. It doesn’t matter anyhow. This is a pipe dream. A lark.
My wife makes me promise, dutifully, to follow up with the submission if too many days have passed before we’ve heard a response. We discuss a time frame. I know what it is to sift through the garbage of employment inquiries, but she’s ever hopeful and eager, and would see me follow a path of tenacity rather than caution. We agree to wait for three weeks. She makes me note our agreed follow-up date on my calendar. She watches me do so. Now I will have to follow-up.
Three days pass. It is now Thursday of the same week. It’s a sunny, crisp Californian spring afternoon. I am sitting at our balcony, smoking Virginia Cut Plug from a straight billiard, listening to Abbey Road echoing quietly from the living room behind me. When the phone rings I do not answer because the reported number is very unfamiliar. What a very curious area code. “843”?
Seconds pass before the phone silences. My distracted mind lazily returns to the fragrant smoke, keen to its lingering taste of honeysuckle and wheat berry. After several moments my relaxation is again agitated by a harsh chime which indicates the arrival of voicemail.
I jam the pipe into my mouth, freeing both hands, slap the OFF button on the stereo’s remote, grab my phone and dial into the voicemail system.
“Hello, this is Brian Levine from Smokingpipes.com. I’m looking at your resume and I’m interested in talking with you.”
It’s the middle of June. Brian said that Sykes Wilford, President and Founder of Smokingpipes.com, might eventually call, but one of the last things he said to me before we hung up was, “Don‘t quit your day-job.”
We had spoken at length of our interest in pipes and pipe tobacco, our distress regarding the availability of some of our favorite brands, and of the various facets of the pipe community in general. I felt boyish when he asked that I speak of my own very small collection of very common pipes. Yet, talking with Brian had, for the first time, made me feel like the possibility of moving to Little River, South Carolina was a real one. This is a dangerous feeling. This is a pipe dream.
My wife is too excited about all of this. It makes me nervous. On the night I’d spoken with Brian, Shelly and I made an agreement to wait three weeks before I started sniffing around again. “No less than three weeks.” I had said adamantly. “Brian only said Sykes might call. He said, ‘Don’t quit your day job.’” After two weeks of patient waiting, Shelly’s begun to nudge daily about my scheduled “follow-up”.
“How many days?” she asks, smiling knowingly, and bright.
“Three days. I call in three days. But maybe I’ll email.”
“I think you should call.”
Today is July 8th. On June 25th, I was supposed to call Smokingpipes.com. Were they interested in hiring me or were they not, I’d ask. Of course, I had no intention of putting it to anyone quite so bluntly, but that was the gist of it. In a nutshell, so to speak. Instead, Sykes Wilford, President and Founder, called me on June 24th.
Shelly and I are headed to the Sacramento airport. Sykes is flying me out to see the operation and to get a feel for things. I’ll only be in Little River for one full day, so I’ve packed light, bringing only one pipe, a Dunhill 4103, and a small pouch of Pembroke by Esoterica. The thick mixture of thrill and anxiety is rather nauseating. I'm actually flying out there. I can hardly believe this is happening. This is crazy.
For seven weeks now we have been extremely lucky to have an intern helping us with the daily duties that make our updates possible. Sarah has turned out to be an awesome asset to us. Not only has she done everything expected of her, but she has also contributed ideas in areas where most of us are still uncomfortable.
Sarah, in a short time, has turned into an important member of the team. We joke with her, con her into having lunch with us (even though she has brought her lunch) and ask for her input on ideas. She has been efficient, thorough and capable while performing her work here at Smokingpipes.com. She has made us all look at pipes through the eyes of Lady Gaga while staring at a milkshake. In other words, we’ve become quite fond of her.
But, alas, today is her last day. Sarah will be leaving us this afternoon to prepare for her return to college. Knowing how much she will be missed, we surprised her this afternoon with a cake and a card. I think she was shocked and, in the words of Lady Gaga, we left her “Speechless”.
At the very end of last month, on the Wednesday before the Chicago pipe show, we bought an estate of over 500 pipes. Actually, it was more like 600, but there were around 500 that mattered. Plus two. Most of them were top quality English made pipes; but, like most of us as we pursue this passion across years and decades, there was quite the assortment of oddities. And I don't mean oddities in an 'oddities and rarities' sort of way. More in a "why would anyone have made that?" or, perhaps more to the point, "why, indeed, would anyone have parted with hard-earned cash for it?"
One of those 'oddities' was this brilliantly articulated interpretation of, yes, a shoe. Sykes and I were handling this estate together: it takes a long time for two people to work through that many pipes. Sykes, for reasons that continue to elude me, negotiated for the deal to include this little wooden shoe and an absurd cast brass pipe of some sort of Belgian general. Sykes gets rather punchy after ten straight hours of cataloging pipes, so that might have played some role in his sudden predilection towards the absurd.
Far be it for me to argue if he wanted to add it to his collection of Danish and Japanese high grades, so into the box with the other pipes went the little shoe.
Fast forward to Sunday evening in our pipe room. After a long week, the show crew is gathered to pack up the pipes for their trip. From among the pipes from some of the greatest pipe makers in the world, pops up the little shoe, and I go into my standard routine talking about the drilling, the grain and so on. The rest of room comments on the pipe and its design. It is then I realize and announce "what makes this pipe truly special is it has soul...or at least a sole...". That solidified it as some sort of office mascot.
Fast forward a week and back to the Smokingpipes.com conference room, located in the main building of the Smokingpipes.com campus (which, granted, only has two buildings, but we're working on it). We're unpacking pipes in there. Sykes, Alyson, Pam and I have hundreds of pipes arrayed on the table, sorting and organizing, and up, again, pops the shoe pipe. Alyson, the keeper of the new pipes at Smokingpipes.com, so the one who keeps track of, oh, about 2,500 pipes at an given time, and also a woman who, we believe, also goes by the name Imelda and might secretly be married to a Philippine dictator, immediately claims it, indicating that this was the first time she'd been able to, with one item, add to her burgeoning collections of each, at work and home, respectively.
Sykes, no longer quite as punchy as he had been, happily gave it up. But then Susan and Pam each tried to claim it. Then Mark, for reasons I still haven't determined, got into the fray. Alyson emerged victorious, pipe/shoe in hand, but I had long since abandoned that particular battleground, as either a participant or a spectator, so I can't relate exactly how that happened.
Of course, no one wanted his silly Belgian general guy, so he got to keep that. The top row of his pipe rack at work now looks sort of like this: J. Alan, Gotoh, Tokutomi, Tokutomi, Silly Brass Belgian Guy, Teddy, Peter Heeschen, Paolo Becker, Smio Satou. He's happy though. Apparently, even in a more sedate mood he still likes the Belgian dude.
Hours of Operation:
Our website is always open and you can place an order at any time. Phone/office hours are 9am-7pm US/Eastern (GMT -5:00) Monday-Friday and 10am-5pm US/Eastern (GMT -5:00) on Saturdays. Our Little River, SC showroom is open 10am-7pm US/Eastern (GMT -5:00) Monday-Saturday. We are closed on Sundays.
We reserve the right to verify delivery to cardholder via UPS. You must be 18 years or older to make any selections on this site - by doing so, you are confirming that you are of legal age to purchase tobacco products or smoking accessories. We will deny any order we believe has been placed by a minor.
WARNING: Smokingpipes.com does not sell tobacco or tobacco related products to anyone under the age of 18, nor do we sell cigarettes.WARNING:Products on this site contain chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.