This year I attended my first Chicago pipe show, and I'm still absorbing everything I saw and heard, smelled, felt and tasted. All of the senses are required for full appreciation of the event, and my brain's receptors worked hard. I'm one of the Customer Service Representatives for Smokingpipes, so this show was an opportunity to see some of the customers I've grown to know over the phone, to meet lots of new pipe enthusiasts, and, of course, to see great pipes from all over the world and smoke some excellent tobaccos — all in the company of hundreds of people sharing my passion.
I didn't know quite what to expect from my first Chicago show. I've attended a few shows in the past and figured it'd be more of the same, but nothing can prepare a pipe smoker for the sensory overload that is the Chicago show.
We arrived on Wednesday and set up our hospitality suite, using half for a smoking lounge and the other arranged with tables for pipe displays. We brought essential amenities of home, including snacks and drinks, and smoking accoutrements and ashtrays galore. The nights before the show saw lots of early arrivals stopping by, pipecarvers and Smokingpipes customers alike, and the nights were filled with friends old and new catching up and swapping outrageous stories and tall tales.
By the time Saturday morning brought the first official show day, I thought I had experienced most of what the show had to offer. What could be left after three nights in the Smokingpipes hospitality suite? The show itself would probably be anticlimactic after that excitement. Walking onto the show floor early that morning, though, I discovered how naive I was.
Pipemakers were everywhere. You couldn't blow dottle out of a pipe without befouling a dozen world famous carvers. I turned and bumped into none other than Tom Eltang. Backing up to apologize, I stumbled into Nanna Ivarsson. Horrified at my own clumsiness, I dodged to the left and almost knocked down Kei'Ichi Gotoh; almost losing my balance, I was steadied by Jeff Gracik. I decided to find our tables and sequester myself for a while before I did damage to the world's greatest pipemaker population.
There was an air of sadness at the event this year because of Lars Ivarsson's recent passing. His work was celebrated with an impressive display of his briars from several esteemed collections, as well as the highly-anticipated silent auction for Lars's final completed pipe. Throughout it all, his daughter Nana received everyone's condolences with grace, dignity, and charm.
Like any show, many of the local-area tobacconists attended, like my friends from Paul's Pipe Shop in Flint, Michigan. Chicago legend Iwan Ries had a large inventory of McClelland tobacco that caused a lot of interest. There were more than a few collectors who had brought pieces from their museum-quality collections for display and discussion, estate hunters from across the globe with rare and prized treasure-finds (along with a ton of basket pipes), and more meerschaum than you could shake an eagle claw at. There was pipe show excitement in the air, and everyone that stopped by the Smokingpipes tables was having a grand time.
Old friendships resumed throughout the day and later in the smoking tent. I saw many friends that I've met at other shows, and I was privileged to make new friends with a few Smokingpipes customers I had previously spoken with only over the phone (and then only during the serious business of buying pipes and tobacco). Laughter could be heard up and down the hallways of the resort well into the night, and many made the pilgrimage to everyone's favorite late-night hangout, the empty "owner's suite" that the resort opens every year to show attendees. It's a huge two-story three-bedroom suite secluded on one end of the resort, decorated in '70s kitsch, and is filled with couches, tables, and chairs. It rivals the smoking tent in popularity (for those who know where it's hidden) and is one of the Chicago show's more endearing highlights.
Sunday was a slightly more subdued affair, with attendees making their final buying decisions, and old friends saying goodbye. The United Pipe Clubs of America's National Pipe Smoking Contest was held that afternoon, with many US and international clubs represented. The top two finishers were Lev Vasilyev (1st) and Alexy Shikhovtsav (2nd), both from the St. Petersburg (Russia) Pipe Club. Once last year's winner Alexy went out, this year's eventual winner called himself out shortly thereafter, and walked out still smoking his pipe, with a winning time of 93 min, 38 sec. The new US National Champion is Alan Boyd, who came in 3rd overall, with a time of 74 min, 2 sec. The UPCA has posted the official results at http://www.unitedpipeclubs.org/.
Sunday night saw steady but sparse crowds in the smoking tent, as most people had left earlier in the day. For those staying behind, deep conversations and quiet companionship closed the evening, and more than a few stayed up well into the night, taking advantage of every minute of their short time together before returning to the real world.
By morning, the place had cleared out, almost as if the whole thing had never happened. Climbing into the airport shuttle, I felt both relieved and regretful that it was over. It's a lot of work, but it's also the highlight of our year, and there's a part of me that wishes it would never end.
I ran into Sykes at the coffee maker shortly after we got back to HQ (both of us still recovering from a week's worth of sleep-deprivation and merry-making), and we talked for a bit about the show, and how much it means to us. He called it special. I struggled to find another word for it and I couldn't, so we left it at that — it's special.
If you've never been to a pipe show, then I recommend you attend the next one you can (see the schedule below). You'll see your favorite tobacconists displaying their best wares as well as estate hunters and meerschaum traders, tobacco companies and just about everything pipe related you can imagine. More important, you'll meet the pipemakers themselves, from the smaller local makers (their work often hidden gems) to the most celebrated carvers in the world. If you're a pipe nerd like me (which I'm guessing you are, since you're reading a pipe blog), that alone guarantees a good time. But if you're lucky, that show becomes more than just a show; it becomes something special, where friends share a mutual love for all things pipe.
Pipe Show Schedule 2018
The St. Louis Pipe Club Annual Pipe Show and Swap Feb 17
New York Pipe Show, 25th Annual Pipe Convention Mar 10
Triangle Area Pipe Smokers Raleigh Pipe Show Apr 7
The Chicagoland Int'l Pipe & Tobacciana Show May 2-6
North American Society of Pipe Collectors - 2018 Swap/Sell Pipe Show Aug 17-18
The Greater Kansas City Pipe & Tobacco Show Sept 21-23
The Texas Pipe Show Oct 6
10th Annual 2018 West Coast Pipe Show Nov 10-11