Rick Newcombe’s Pipe Dreams

Rick Newcombe

Rick Newcombe in his den. Photo by Xuhai

Rick Newcombe's curiosity and motivation reside in the primordial lizard area of his brain stem, as basic to his survival as breathing or temperature regulation. Early in his journalism career, he became interested in newspaper syndication and became the youngest vice president of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate just five years after graduating college. He thought he could contribute more, though, and it was only another five years before he started his own company, Creators Syndicate, thriving and successful still.

A little later, when Rick rediscovered his childhood passion for bodybuilding, he made excellent progress, pumped iron with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and was featured prominently in the Franco Columbu (Mr. Olympia) book The Businessman's Minutes-a-Day Guide to Shaping Up.

But it's when he became intrigued with pipes that things started getting really interesting.

"It all started with a letter from my father," says Rick. The letter asked him to give up his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. "I was 27 years old, married, and establishing my career. He said, 'You do everything right except that you smoke cigarettes. You've got to give those up.' He was passionate, and it really got to me. I was working for UPI (United Press International) in the old Baltimore News American building, owned by Hearst. It was about a two-block walk to Fader's downtown tobacco store in those days. I walked over and met a really nice guy working there, Dave Huggins, from Maryland, who later worked for Pipes and tobaccos magazine. "

Rick said that he wanted to give up cigarettes and switch to a pipe. "I bought a Fader's Handmade straight Billiard. I think it was either $5 or $15, and I really enjoyed it." A few days later, he was back at Fader's to buy another pipe. "I want to try a bent pipe this time," he told Dave.

A Damaged Pipe

That night, he smoked his new pipe alone in his apartment. His wife, Carole, was finishing law school in Charlottesville, Virginia, almost ready to graduate, while Rick was in Baltimore with UPI. "I was watching television or something, and I was smoking pretty fast, like a cigarette smoker." That's when the pipe became clogged. He couldn't get any air through the stem.

That night, he smoked his new pipe alone in his apartment

Rick Newcombe

Rick Newcombe

"I decided to run a pipe cleaner through it. When I separated the mouthpiece from the shank, the shank cracked. I thought the pipe was defective, so I went back to Fader's the next day, and Dave said, 'You know, you really shouldn't separate it when it's hot.' I didn't know that. They gave me a replacement, which I still have. And gradually, I learned to smoke a pipe, and I got to know Bill Fader. I was always looking for feature stories to write for UPI and thought he was interesting." Fader's was expanding with new stores, and Bill was Director of the RTDA (Retail Tobacco Dealers of America, now called the Premium Cigar Association). Rick interviewed him, and his story was picked up by a significant number of newspapers.

In 1978, when Rick and Carole had relocated to Santa Monica, California, Rick started noticing a daily ad in the Santa Monica Evening Outlook "It was an ad for the Tinder Box," says Rick. "It looked like a little Monopoly man." He of course visited, and he became acquainted with Ed Kolpin and his famous Wilshire Boulevard Tinder Box. "I'd stop in that store often and buy his blends. I just loved pipes. I started buying more and more." He later bought his first high-end pipe there, a Radice. "My wife would buy me a nice pipe for Christmas or my birthday, like a Savinelli or Stanwell. These are still treasured pipes for me."

An Influential Hobbyist

Rick's impact on the global pipe culture has been felt through his two books, In Search of Pipe Dreams and Still Searching for Pipe Dreams. He's been recognized as a Doctor of Pipes, and before all of that, he was the prime catalyst in popularizing high-end Danish artisan pipes in the U.S., all because he was curious to meet these makers and became enthusiastic about them and their work.

Rick has a knack for making coincidence commonplace

The wheels that would transport that weighty happenstance at first revolved slowly. Their first nudge was from Ed Lehman, a collector in Chicago and among the most respected members of the pipe community — kind, whip-smart, witty, and regarded with affection and esteem. He was an early Doctor of Pipes and a legendary collector, and his son, strangely enough, was best friends with Rick's brother.

Rick, by the way, has a knack for making coincidence commonplace, or maybe his strength of will bends space and time to his immediate goals, known or unknown. He denies this superpower, but for a young pipe collector, unfamiliar with the hobby at large, to run into Ed Lehman is as unlikely as a young bodybuilder finding himself friends with and pumping iron with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

'What do you know about this pipe? It's stamped Ivarsson Product.'

Of course, they would meet. It's funny, says Rick, that they hadn't already; their families had known of each other for years. His brother told him about the pipes at his friend's house and urged him to call Mr. Lehman, which Rick did.

"I introduced myself on the phone, and he said, 'It's so funny you called. I had it on my list to call you today. My son keeps telling me I have to call Rick Newcombe because he collects pipes.' We talked for about an hour and a half. It was a great conversation."

It became routine for Ed and Rick to speak a couple of times a week. Rick had never seen a pipe show, and Ed encouraged him to attend the Indiana Briar Friars show. "I was syndicating Dan Quayle at the time, who had just been vice president. We had breakfast in Carmel, Indiana, in a private booth with a curtain. I was struck by how smart he was. The media made it sound like he was an idiot, but he wasn't. He was remarkably insightful about political strategies."

After breakfast, Rick went to the pipe show, and he found a pipe he liked but he didn't know anything about the maker. "It was a giant-bowled, black sandblast with a bamboo shank that was pretty yellowed. I traded for it."

One Sunday morning he was relaxing with that pipe when he noticed something unusual. "I thought, man, this thing never goes out. This is a very good pipe. I called Ed and said, 'What do you know about this pipe? It's stamped Ivarsson Product.' He said, 'That's Sixten Ivarsson. Those pipes are expensive and hard to find.'" Rick hadn't traded a lot for it. Perhaps whoever traded the Sixten was unaware of its value, and Rick didn't know enough at the time to correct him. He just knew that he liked the pipe.

He found another Sixten, priced at $2,400, on display at Cellini's, a downtown Chicago shop that was going out of business. "Ed negotiated with Cellini's on my behalf and got them down to $1,200. So I bought it and oh, my goodness. What a pipe."

Around that time Carole wanted to visit Europe, where she had relatives. In Cologne, Germany, Rick visited Peter Heinrichs, a pipe shop celebrated for its preposterously expansive pipe inventory. "I remember looking at his high-end pipes and being so impressed by Poul Ilsted and Lars Ivarsson and S. Bang and Bo Nordh. There were pipes by a maker named 'Jess' that blew me away, especially because I had never heard of him. It was a nice time. I bought a Bo Nordh pipe from Peter on that trip, a sandblasted Horn."

Peter Heinrichs invited him to dinner at his home that evening. Rick doesn't meet people; he makes friends.

"He had a house and a pipe store out in the country, as well as a store in the city. I was very impressed. He showed me one of Joseph Stalin's pipes, which in principle, I wouldn't have touched with a 10-foot pole, but Peter was a very nice man. He would get into that store at five in the morning and work until 10 at night; he was just a workaholic. He smoked cigarettes endlessly while selling pipes."

He showed me one of Joseph Stalin's pipes

Rick noticed some oddities in the way Peter ran his business. "I told Peter that in the Tinder Box in Santa Monica, everybody smokes a pipe, and it smells so good, but in his store, none of the people smoked a pipe."

Rick Newcombe

Rick Newcombe in Antarctica

"Oh no," said Peter. "I don't allow it. They can't concentrate on the customers if they're smoking pipes."

"But you lose that camaraderie found in pipe smoking," said Rick. They didn't agree on everything, but had a great time and found plenty of mutual respect.

Their next stop was Copenhagen, where Carole's relatives lived. "I pulled out the yellow pages and looked up Ivarsson. Lars answered the phone. I made an appointment to see them at three o'clock the following afternoon. Then I called S. Bang, thinking it was a giant workshop, and Ulf answered the phone; we made an appointment for 10:00 the next morning, when it happened to be pouring rain. Then I saw the name of the guy whose pipes I was so impressed by at Peter Heinrichs: Jess Chonowitsch. I called him up." Jess offered to drive to Rick's hotel to have lunch and look at pipes. Rick says that Jess often joked about that first meeting. He was staying at a fancy hotel and, as Jess jokingly remembers it, "I knew this guy had some money, so I decided it was worthwhile to make the 60-km trip into Copenhagen."

But Rick's first meeting that day was at S. Bang, where he was surprised that the company was entirely staffed by only two, Ulf and Per, and he bought three pipes. "I was so excited with those pipes," he says. "I still have them." He returned to his hotel to meet Jess, who brought with him a briefcase containing eight pipes.

"They were almost all straight grains, and I just drooled. I wrote a large check for a beautiful straight-grain bent pipe, and I was so excited to get it. Then an hour later, I went to the old W.Ø. Larsen pipe store. This was all in one day. And Ole Larsen gave me a tour of their pipe-tobacco museum downstairs. He was a very nice man."

"They were almost all straight grains, and I just drooled."

Rick just has a way of finding the top people in their fields, perhaps a reason for the success of Creators Syndicate and Creators Publishing. He brings talent on board all the time. He's personable, but he also offered artists something that other syndications did not: ownership. Creators Syndicate was the first to allow cartoonists to own their respective work. Many were attracted, like the legendary political cartoonist Herbert Block of The Washington Post, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning byline was "Herblock." Rick talked Ann Landers into joining Creators as well as Johnny Hart and his cartoons, B.C. and the Wizard of Id.

Carole Newcombe has noticed Rick's tendencies. "She's made the observation," says Rick, "that when I wanted to learn about bodybuilding, I got to know Arnold and Franco. When I wanted to learn about newspapers, I became close with Otis Chandler and Rupert Murdoch. When I wanted to learn about pipes, I got to know Bo Nordh and Lars Ivarsson and Jess Chonowitsch. I don't know. I just think if you want to learn, you should learn from the best."

Rick Newcombe

Rick Newcombe and Bo Nordh

After meeting all of those pipe makers, Rick couldn't contain his enthusiasm and wanted everyone to know what terrific pipes were being made in Denmark. He persuaded makers like Jess Chonowitsch to attend shows, and he made introductions to influential people. He showed the pipes to everyone he could, he wrote articles for Pipe Friendly, The Pipe Smokers Ephemeris, The Pipe Collector, Reason. and Pipes and tobaccos, and he wrote a book partially made from those articles called In Search of Pipe Dreams, one of the most respected works in our hobby. Very quickly, over perhaps three or four years, Danish artisan pipes came to dominate the high-end market in the U.S., and American pipe makers began examining the stylistic and mechanical strategies for achieving pipes of equal quality. American pipe making learned and benefitted.

Danish artisan pipes came to dominate the high-end market

The Benefits of Pipe Smoking

"As Ed Kolpin once said, 'You live longer with a pipe,' and he should know. He lived to 97. There are benefits to pipe smoking when practiced in moderation and without inhaling smoke." Rick is a proponent of the good things that smoking brings, foremost among them, perhaps, being relaxation. Stress is dangerous, and pipe smoking helps reduce it.

"Another way that it improves health is that people are dying from loneliness. Loneliness is a killer, but if you're in this hobby of pipe collecting, you always have friends. You can always find people who have shared interests. And they're not only here, but they could be in Russia, they could be in Ukraine, they could be in China, they could be in Denmark or anyplace in America. This hobby promotes friendships, which is an antidote to loneliness, so that's another way pipes promote good health. Pipe shows, pipe clubs, regular Zoom calls, forums, blogs, newsletters, pipe friendships — all of these things promote good health. No wonder so many pipe and cigar legends lived so long, including Paul Perri, 100, Ed Kolpin, 97, George Burns, 100, Pierre Mueller (still alive at 90-something), and plenty of others."

"This hobby promotes friendships, which is an antidote to loneliness"

The third way that pipe smoking is beneficial, says Rick, is that it provides a collecting attitude similar to the excitement we felt in childhood. "When I was a kid," says Rick, "I was always excited about everything. It was easy to set goals and to be interested in the future. As little kids, we collected toys. Well, in the same way, when we get older, we collect toys just like we did in childhood. That's fun and gives a purpose and meaning to life. It brings out our inner child."

Rick Newcombe

Rick Newcombe and Poul Ilsted

Current Collection

With decades of refined collecting experience, it might be expected that Rick has a spectacular pipe collection. "I'm embarrassed to say that I'm so undisciplined that I probably have about between 500 and 600," he says. As for tobacco, he gravitates to English blends and has enough Nightcap, My Mixture 965, Crown Achievement, and Early Morning Pipe to last the rest of his life, having purchased tobacco avidly over the years. He tended to buy five-pound bags and store them in picnic coolers, and those coolers still fill a storage room in his house. "That's mostly what I smoke to this day. I bought so much. It's cellared; it's very good; and it's what I'm used to."

Rick's lifetime of pipe collecting has delivered some insights. He's generously shared many of them through In Search of Pipe Dreams and Still Searching for Pipe Dreams, but he's always an ambassador of the pipe. "My only advice is to have fun, remembering that friendships last longer than anything material. The memories and the future friendships are the real benefits. It's like Paul Bender says: He's met some of his best friends at pipe shows, and I agree with that. Pipes are fun, and they're an endless source of curiosity and excitement for never losing that youthful enthusiasm."

Rick Newcombe

Bibliography

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