A portrait of Brian Levine by Artur Lopes
Those involved in the pipe community for any length of time are familiar with Brian Levine, because he makes sure they are. He introduces himself to everyone, and with humor and self-deprecation, charm and bad jokes, makes them immediate friends. His knowledge of tobacco and pipes is a resource admired by many, confirmed when he was awarded the prestigious Dr. of Pipes degree, an honorary conferred by the Chicago Pipe Club. He's worked in virtually every capacity known in the tobacco industry, for a wide variety of companies and with various responsibilities. I've worked with him myself, when he was with Pipes and tobaccos magazine, and a few folks here at Smokingpipes remember him from his tenure in South Carolina ten years ago.
He was general manager here at Smokingpipes in 2009-2010, where he was popular for the continuing education classes he presented on pipes, and for his positive attitude about everything. "We bonded over Disney stuff," says Lisa Mogel, our CFO, "and he always had a joke; he always found a way to make any situation amusing." "Really nice guy, with a really weird sense of humor," summarizes our restoration manager, Adam Davidson. Sykes Wilford maintains his friendship with Brian, and remembers that he was especially good with employees. "I can confuse people, I lack patience and I'm just not a great day-in-day-out manager (particularly in those days)," says Sykes. "Brian's friendlier and easier to get to know and work with, which made him a natural fit for the GM role for Smokingpipes — until he started playing really loud Disney music in his office after-hours when we were both still working. That was intolerable...I have a kid now and I curl up into a ball every time I hear the opening bars of 'It's a Small World After All.'"
Before Smokingpipes, Brian was director of sales and marketing for the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America trade association. Before that he spent several years as sales manager for Peter Stokkebye International, and before that for Hollco Rohr (a tobacco and pipe distributor), and before that he was the humidor manager for Alfred Dunhill in Las Vegas and Beverly Hills.
"Everybody has a superhero origin story..."
Post-Smokingpipes, he managed Brigham USA, distributing Brigham pipes and accessories, and that position morphed into a combination with being vice president of sales for Sutliff Tobacco company. When that position started to require his regular physical presence, rather than commuting occasionally from Charlotte, NC, and working from home, he knew it was time for a move, and he started working for SpecComm International, publisher of Pipes and tobaccos magazine. That position evaporated after six months as SpecComm was involved in being sold, though I speculate that the closing of P&T was incidental and he most likely wasn't entirely responsible. He is now an independent travel consultant specializing in all cruises and everything Disney.
You'd think he's unable to hold down a job, but all of those positions were for several years each, except at Smokingpipes and P&T. He was commuting from Charlotte, NC to Longs, SC for his time at Smokingpipes, and because his family didn't want to move, he knew it was unsustainable, and he moved on to Brigham pipes. "I told Sykes," says Brian, "'I've got good news and bad news for you, Sykes.' I said, 'The good news is you'll no longer have to pay for all the coffee that I drink in the office. The bad news is you're going to have to buy pipes from me.' Sykes said, 'Okay, I can live with that; it'll be cheaper than the coffee.'"
Despite all those positions in the pipe industry, Brian is most recognizable as the host of the Pipes Magazine Radio Show. If you're unfamiliar with it, it's a podcast in which Brian interviews interesting people in the hobby and the industry. It's been a background part of his identity for the past eight years.
Pipes Magazine Radio Show
"Kevin Godbee, of PipesMagazine.com, approached me about it in June of 2012," says Brian. Kevin felt it would provide another dimension of information for readers of the site. "He wanted to add an audio-only show. Reading a website and reading blog posts is easy for a lot of people, but when you're traveling or commuting, a weekly podcast is best — you can take it with you wherever you go."
Kevin did his research before contacting Brian. He asked trusted people who they thought might be best suited, and they unanimously recommended Brian Levine. "He talked to two people," Brian says in blunt clarification. "And they both thought of me because, apparently, I can talk and people sometimes listen — if they're not related to me or married to me, that is."
"I met Brian in 2010," says Kevin, "when PipesMagazine.com was one year old. I'd been contracted to sell the pipe collection of the late Hollywood producer, Aaron Spelling. Few people knew about it because I was contractually obligated to keep it confidential at the time. But I met with Sykes Wilford and Brian, who was GM of Smokingpipes, before the Chicago pipe show. We spent 12 hours logging over 600 pipes into a spreadsheet. That was when I discovered that Brian is a total goof, and also an expert at appraising pipes."
When Kevin had the idea of a podcast two years later, he wondered who could host it effectively. "During a phone call with Sandy Porter, who has his own ad agency and some tobacco clients, Sandy recommended Brian. That was my 'duh, why didn't I think of that?' moment.
"There are other podcasts for pipe hobbyists," says Kevin, "which are all appreciated, and not to take anything away from them, but there is really nothing like The Pipes Magazine Radio Show. Nobody has the quick-witted personality, vast knowledge of pipes and tobacco, and years of experience that Brian has. To date he's completed seven-and-a-half years and 387 interviews. That's a vast amount of information that's been transmitted; personal, one-on-one interviews to over 10,000 listeners in 57 countries. I've actually seen him being asked for an autograph. He's kind of famous inside of our little world of pipes and tobacco, and he handles it well."
"Kevin said that?" says Brian. "Y'know, it has been a thrill on the one or two occasions when I've been recognized for the show. My wife thought it was absolutely nuts when a listener saw me post on Facebook when we were in Amsterdam. He lived about an hour away, and he just wanted to come and meet me and sit and have a beer. We were sitting outside, smoking our pipes, drinking beers in Amsterdam, and he looked at my wife, and he said, 'Thank you for taking time out of your vacation. He's such a celebrity that I just had to come and meet him.' She didn't understand that at all, but she now likes going to pipe shows, where people introduce themselves and wonder what she did wrong in a previous life, why she's such an angel, how does she put up with me. She likes that."
The podcast sounded interesting, so Brian did some investigation of his own. "I said to my kids, 'What's a podcast?' because I didn't have any idea. I didn't buy stuff on iTunes; I still went to the record store and bought CDs. So, I said, 'That sounds interesting," and wondered, 'How will this work with my full-time job?' because at that point I was managing Brigham USA. We ironed out the details and made it work."
"I don't care whether you smoke a corncob or a Bo Nordh: You're a pipe smoker and you're a friend of mine. I don't care whether you smoke bubblegum aromatics or 30-year-aged Balkan Sobranie: You're a pipe smoker and you're a friend of mine."
Brian spent time listening to podcasts, getting a feel for the styles of successful shows. He met with Kevin Godbee and Greg Pease at the Kansas City Pipe Show, and they talked about different ideas. Once he had a basic format in mind, his learning curve became steeper. "I started learning about podcasting and how to do it, what is podcasting, and what is an audio show, and I started listening to a whole bunch of them, and spent that summer in my free time learning about the recording software, the technology that's out there, and settling down on what we thought was going to be a good start of a style. Then we launched it in 2012."
With a college background in television and film, Brian had experienced some airtime. "I remembered that if you were going to do a recording, you had to have a soundproof room, you had to have a mixing board, you had to have noise-dampening microphones."
But it started out a little more economical than all that. "For the first five years of the show, I used a $149 microphone, and just some basic noise-dampening in the room. I was with Brigham, and my noise-dampening was the fabric panels from our trade show booth. I created a tiny sound room around my desk that I put up and took down when I needed it, but, yeah, it was that mic, and some free software. Since then, I've bought some fancier stuff to do different things, like mixing. Before, I had only one microphone for two people, so I was using a speakerphone and putting the microphone between the two of us, and the only way I could modulate the volume was to move the microphone closer to me or the phone. But now I have an eight-channel mixing board, so I can modulate stuff independently; I can tune and retune individual sounds, individual recorded tracks.
"What I realized I could do with this podcast was create an audio history of the hobby/industry, and perhaps get some of the old-timers to come on and talk about what it was like back in the day, and create an historical library in audio format."
His first show simply established who he was. "It was the worst interview I ever gave because it was about me. My first real guest was pipe maker Michael Parks. I saw him at the Columbus pipe show, and I said, 'Michael, I've got this brand new thing that I'm doing, and I'd like to record an interview with you.'
"Then my second guest was Mary McNiel of McClelland Tobacco. Early on, I was really making a concerted effort to invite a pipe maker and then maybe somebody from the industry side, so an importer or a tobacco manufacturer, and then a collector, and then a pipe maker, and then an industry person, and then a collector. I was trying to get the different personalities represented."
One of his early interviews was with a friend who smoked a pipe and worked full-time performing one-man shows as Thomas Edison. "We did the first half of the interview as me interviewing Thomas Edison, and then the second half of the interview, I introduced my friend Frank to everybody. It was a little experimental."
Brian says he wishes he could redo the first 20 or so shows, because he didn't know what he was doing. "There's some stuff in those early shows that I would love to be able to do over again. But it's like your first child: you screw that one up, then you get the next and hope for better."
Brian finds that a conversational-style interview is most appropriate for pipe people, as opposed to, say, cigar enthusiasts, and more interesting information is forthcoming in a casual conversation than in a structured format. "Pipe smokers want to sit down and have a quiet conversation," says Brian. "They want to talk about things, and learn from each other. Cigar smokers want to show each other the biggest, fanciest thing that they just bought, and how much it cost them. I think pipe smokers are much more conversational and intellectual, in my humble opinion, and I am the undisputed leading expert on my own opinion."
"When Peter Stokkebye jokingly introduced me to everybody as his adopted stepson, my reputation went through the roof."
Good things come out of conversational communication. "One of my favorite discussions was with J.T. Cooke, when he talked about how he made his own bass guitar, because he just wanted to make one, and he could. Then he decided to sandblast it, and he did. Because he could."
He likes to elicit personal anecdotes from guests because they're often interesting, but he's always aware that the pipe aspect of the interview is most important to his audience. "Everybody has a superhero origin story, which is what I call the 'where are you from, what did you want to be when you grew up, how did you get into pipe smoking' category of questions."
Representing whatever subject is at hand in the best light is an overriding philosophy for Brian's interview style. "I do that with a particular, natural attitude toward everyone. I don't care whether you smoke a corncob or a Bo Nordh: You're a pipe smoker and you're a friend of mine. I don't care whether you smoke bubblegum aromatics or 30-year-aged Balkan Sobranie: You're a pipe smoker and you're a friend of mine."
Since the very beginning, Brian has adhered to the regular, predictable publication of the show, now close to 400 consecutive weeks, every week of the year, on the same day and at the same time. "We have never missed a week of a new upload of a new show. When I travel, I prerecord two or three shows and send them to Kevin, he gets them ready to go on Tuesday night at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time, and though I may be somewhere on a trip or involved in something unrelated, and they may have been recorded two weeks earlier, those shows air on time."
He had learned a valuable lesson by studying successful podcasts. "They produced on a schedule that was predictable, reliable, dependable. I told Kevin at the beginning, 'Look, if I'm going to do this, I need a commitment that we're doing it for one year. If it's a success or a failure, we're going to do it for a guaranteed one-year duration and see where it goes.'
"What I'm finding more and more interesting, and this is what's keeping the show going longer than I thought it ever would, is that there's so much information in the hobby, and there're so many different experiences in the hobby, that it's really not hard for two people who love what they're talking about to sit down and talk about one thing for 30 minutes. That's really easy."
Brian's tobacco story starts in Las Vegas, where many unexpected things start. He was the only smoker employed on the retail side and volunteered to do the cigar buying for the MGM Grand. "At that point, I was a cigarette smoker, but I understood a little bit about cigars. It was something that I could grab onto and take a hold of as my own little project while I was there. That's how I got into it."
He then moved into the Dunhill store at the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. "It was at Dunhill," says Brian, "where I really got much more interested in the experience of pipe smoking, in the history of pipe smoking. It helps when Richard Dunhill himself is showing you how to pack a pipe and then hands you the pipe and says, 'Here, smoke it.'"
Pipe and tobacco distributor Holco Rohr hired him while he was still with the Dunhill store. "I was among the few people under the age of 60 who liked pipes and pipe tobaccos, and was willing to learn about them." Brian was who the salespeople relied on for choosing pipes and answering retailers' questions on pipes and tobaccos. "That set me apart, because I was too young to remember the war. I became the in-house pipe and tobacco guy around 1999, because they had a whole bunch of reps out on the road who understood cigars, but few who knew anything about pipes."
Perhaps the most important aspect of his position was that it afforded him the opportunity to meet Peter Stokkebye, whose tobaccos were imported by the company. "I became Peter Stokkebye's contact in the office for his Peter Stokkebye Pipe Tobacco seminars that he'd do around the country. He'd call me and say, 'We need to send this, this, and this to that guy, and we need to get this, this, and this to that guy.' I said, 'Okay. Whatever you want, Peter.'"
The company underwent various mergers, eventually becoming what would be called Altadis. The new company had no interest in importing Peter Stokkebye's products, or any other tobacco products; they were going to concentrate on those products that they manufactured. Peter called Brian and said, "We're opening up our own company in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I want you there." In June of 2000, Brian moved his family to Charlotte.
"When Peter Stokkebye walked into a room at a pipe club meeting or a pipe show," says Brian, "everybody knew who he was. Everybody loved him. When he walked into a trade show, everybody knew him. Everybody loved him. When he pulled me along with him and jokingly introduced me to everybody as his adopted stepson, my reputation went through the roof right away.
"I absolutely loved every minute of working at Disneyland."
"When you get to hang out with Peter Stokkebye, you learn all kinds of stuff about who's who and what's what. Peter told me early on, when we were starting to travel a lot together, he said, 'I'm going to tell you three things that I never do. I don't lie to anybody, I don't overpromise, and I don't fool around in the business.'" Peter was talking about romantic relationships with that last piece of advice, something that had never occured to Brian because he's happily married to the only woman in this space/time continuum who permits him near her, but the first two admonitions resonated naturally and became part of his own philosophy.
"I was privileged to travel a lot with Peter for the last three years of his life. When we were at trade shows, we were together. When we were at pipe shows, we were together. I can't thank Peter enough for what he did for me, for getting me out of the cigar business, getting me away from the big companies, and getting me moved here to Charlotte and working with his son Erik. Erik gave me full reign on the pipe tobacco side of the business, and let me do all the trade show stuff, and just elevated me completely beyond just a customer service guy or a sales rep."
When Peter Stokkebye passed away in 2003, it was difficult for Brian, but he stayed with the company until an opportunity with the trade association, Retail Tobacco Dealers of America, presented itself. Erik Stokkebye got the initial call asking about Brian's availability. "I'm not going to hold you back," said Erik. The Peter Stokkebye company in the United States had experienced some lean years, and Erik said, "Go meet with them and see what they say."
For the next three years, Brian was the head of sales and marketing for the trade association, working on the annual trade show, selling almanac ads, selling sponsorships, and making sure everyone was happy with their trade show booths. "I became a very expensive daycare person when it came time for the trade show," says Brian, "and that was a lot of fun and a lot of work, but then that job was eliminated because of new tobacco taxes. I became unaffordable."
Following his time with the trade association, Brian worked for himself briefly. "I don't want to talk about that," he says. "Worst mistake I ever made, I hated every minute and the subject is closed." I happen to know it was a business involving the recycling/refilling of printer cartridges, however, and I don't mind talking about it, but there's not much to say except it didn't sound like a Brian Levine sort of job. "Thankfully, Sykes rescued me from doing that. About a year later, I was working for Smokingpipes."
"I did not rescue him," says Sykes. "At the time, thinking he was happy doing what he was doing, I called him to ask his suggestions for someone in the industry who would be a good GM for Smokingpipes. Tony Saintiague was leaving the company to go back to school and we were hunting for his replacement — and a few phone calls later it became clear that Brian would be willing to do it. I was delighted. Brian had a ton of experience and I already trusted his instincts and judgment. Hell, I didn't know he thought of it as being a rescue until some years later. To my mind, Brian rescued Tony and me: We needed someone good to fill that role so Tony could do something he'd wanted to do for years and we could keep moving forward with Smokingpipes."
"That's nice of Sykes," says Brian, "but I was never so happy to stop doing something in my life, so moving to Smokingpipes was wonderful, though I was there less than two years. We couldn't move to Myrtle Beach because the kids were too ingrained here in Charlotte, and we couldn't sell our house anyway because the housing market was upside down at that time. So, I was doing the commute back and forth, coming home on weekends. But then Brigham wanted me to open their office, and that gave me the chance to be back home every night."
Brian Levine, Main St. Disney
Brian worked at Disneyland during college, and became a lifelong enthusiast. "Disneyland in the 1980s was my version of going into the military; they had very detailed training, very strict expectations. I absolutely loved every minute of working at Disneyland. There's no way I could have done it full-time, though, because at that time my mouth was even blabbier than now, and it didn't look so good coming from a 20-something-year-old. It's barely endurable coming from a 50-something-year-old.
"I was a train conductor on the railroad, and the Disneyland railroad was really the stimulus for the entire park because Walt wanted a place where families could be entertained. Originally, he wanted a place where he could go with his daughters and do stuff with them, not just sit on a park bench and watch them. He was also big into miniature, live steam trains. So, he wanted a train to be involved. Besides the train, I got to drive the vehicles on Main Street, one of which is the actual fire truck that Walt was last pictured on at Disneyland a couple of months before he died in 1966. Well, my last shift that I worked at Disneyland was driving that fire truck up and down Main Street for eight hours."
Later, as a more sophisticated tobacco enthusiast, Brian started collecting Disney tobacciana, particularly pipes branded with the Disney logo and sold at the tobacco shops that once existed in the parks. "The first pipe that I ever smoked was a corn cob that I bought at the Magic Kingdom in Florida in 1989, and it was a terrible pipe smoking event because I didn't know what I was doing. It was that and a pouch of Prince Albert Apple or Middleton's Apple, something like that. I didn't know what I was doing. I was also too embarrassed to smoke it in public, so I only smoked it when we got back to the hotel room because you could actually smoke in hotel rooms back then."
"My favorite Disney pipe is Parker-made and has the Mickey shape drilled as a stem inlay in the style of Dunhill's drilled white spots."
Brian had been collecting Disney tobacco memorabilia for a while when we published an article about him in P&T magazine in 2006, for which he has never forgiven me. "Yeah, then you wrote the article, you rat bastard, tricking me into cooperating. I was buying Disney pipes for $20 to $40 each, all day long, but after the article came out, everybody else got interested and every Disney pipe I've seen since has been over $100, thanks to you, pain in the neck."
"What do you think may happen," I ask, "after this article is published on the Smokingpipes Daily Reader?"
For the first time in our three-hour phone interview, Brian is silent, but not for long. "You are despicable," he says.
He had only 18 Disney pipes at the time of that article, but is now up to 65, in both briar and cherrywood. "I've got a whole bunch of accessories, too, including a pack of Virginia Oval Walt Disney World cigarettes with the Mickey logo silkscreen on the paper of the cigarette. My favorite Disney pipe is Parker-made and has the Mickey shape drilled as a stem inlay in the style of Dunhill's drilled white spots."
Among the ancillary material he's collected is a set of purchase orders from Kaywoodie regarding the purchase of Disney pipes. "Bill Feuerbach from Kaywoodie sent them, matching purchase orders and invoices to and from Disneyland for Kaywoodies, Yello-Boles, and Medicos back in the '80s. I have the actual paperwork corresponding to the fact that they purchased tobacco products, and I can see the costs and everything. Yeah. It's gotten quite out of hand. I've never parted with a piece of the collection. I gave away a couple of duplicate pieces to people, but no pipes. I smoke one of them on a fairly regular basis, but it was made by Charatan, and it smokes really good, especially after Ronnie Bikacsan made an acrylic stem for it."
The Disney collection doesn't see a lot of smoking time, but Brian has a healthy collection of non-Disney pipes to keep him occupied.
"I have two distinct collections of pipes. I have the Disney collection, and I smoke only one or two of those, and I very rarely smoke those. Then I have my personal collection of pipes readily available on the market that I actually smoke everyday, and I smoke all the time. I smoke them, and I smoke them hard, and they're all usually very dirty. There are about 80 pipes in that collection. I don't like it getting much bigger than it is right now, so now and then I go through the pipes and see what hasn't been smoked a lot lately, smoke them again, see what's happening. I have a requirement that my smoking pipe collection has X number of small pipes, X number of larger pipes, and these are all sizes that are important to me but nobody else. I have different pipes to fit the different requirements for when and where I want to smoke."
As for his favorites, Brian is partial to Smio Satou pipes. "When I was at Smokingpipes, my Christmas present to myself was a little red-stained Smio Satou Brandy-esque piece, and that was the beginning of my love affair with the pipes that are made by Satou. It's got a little piece of the tsuishu inlay in it, and from the second bowl I smoked, I was in love with it. That pipe in particular is now reserved for my Virginia bowls during the summertime, in the morning only, because it's too small for a Perique blend. But over the past 10 years, I've accumulated 17 Satou pipes, and they're all smoked regularly. They all have their own time and place, but they're all absolutely perfect, and I'm always looking to add another one."
He also has classic pieces from such iconic manufacturers as GBD, Barling, Sasieni, and Dunhill. "I think it's important that every pipe smoker understand what factory pipes were doing in the 1930s, '40s, '50s, '60s. So I've got that little English slice, and then the rest of my pipes are all pretty much modern artists and pipes, added mainly by regularly checking the Smokingpipes updates for Estate Pipes because that's where I like to buy most of mine, but my focus right now is on Jody Davis pipes and Ernie Markle."
Brian Levine is a pipe enthusiast right down to his mitochondrial DNA, his love for pipes propelling him into many career changes and many friendships, and the pipe community has appreciated his involvement and benefited from his dedication. The Pipes Magazine Radio Show is an enormously important contribution to our community, providing views and information previously unheard of. Brian's wit, playful banter and wretched jokes, his remarkable experience and knowledge, and his loyalty and commitment have made him a central source of information for pipe smokers around the world, all of whom, even those who have not yet met him, are privileged to call him a friend.
Brian Levine featured in P&T Magazine
Tagged in: Famous Pipe Smokers History Humor Interview Pipe Culture Smio Satou