It seems like only yesterday, at times, that I started out working in a tobacco shop, yet it was actually 37 years ago. The landscape was much different then. Our focus was pipes and tobacco- nearly 75% of our business was pipe related. Premium cigars amounted to less than 10%, with machine made cigars being much stronger, and the balance was in accessories and the like. Through the end of the seventies and into the eighties there was a precipitous drop in pipe smoking, yet somehow, pipe smoking survives.
There were amazing blends available then that have disappeared from the scene. Among the late, lamented tobaccos: all of the Sobranie, John Cotton, Four Square, Elephant & Castle and Marcovitch lines have either vanished or have changed. One of my favorites, Bengal Slices, went through changes before vanishing entirely, sort of like extended death throes. Many brands died because there wasn’t enough of a market to make it commercially viable to continue. Others tried to maintain their product lines, but lack of availability of components caused radical changes that disappointed their customers and the blends withered on the vine. Yet somehow, pipe smoking survives.
Our little hobby has been unfairly lumped in with cigarette smoking, and therefore has been demonized as a killer. Forget the findings of the original Surgeon General’s report that showed that pipe smokers lived marginally longer than non-smokers. I don’t mind some of the restrictions that have been placed on all types of smoking. I don’t think that lighting up in a hospital waiting room is a good idea, with sick people being forced to smell smoke, for example. I do get a little peeved, though, in those few restaurants and bars where smoking is still allowed, that I’m asked not to smoke my pipe or cigar while I have to smell stale cigarette smoke. In some places, you can’t even smoke under an overhang or canopy outdoors, because those shelters are considered to be an enclosure. There are lots of parks and open spaces where smoking in all forms is banned. And now, more restrictions are being placed on people in their own neighborhoods and homes. Yet somehow, pipe smoking survives.
Usurious taxes abound in relation to tobacco. There’s a federal excise tax on all tobaccos products. Then the majority of states add their own tariffs, and there are even city taxes on some tobacco products. Additional fees are added by some manufacturers who signed onto the settlement agreement that pays a significant amount, annually, to states, supposedly to fund anti-smoking campaigns, but the money often goes elsewhere. For devotees of imported brands, another layer of cost is added due to import fees. Yet somehow, pipe smoking survives.
Most of us smoke briar pipes. Harvesting briar isn’t an easy job. The burls grow underground and the heath trees grow in rocky soil and hillsides, making access dicey, at times. Finding people who want to do this kind of work can also be difficult, and when it’s hard to get people to do a job, the ones who will do the work expect better pay. When a market shrinks, the way that the pipe market had for so long, the cost of raw materials has to go up to allow the suppliers to survive. The finishing work, even on inexpensive pipes, requires skilled labor, and we all know that training and ability aren’t cheap to come by. Profit has to be made from the people who find the wood, to the mill that prepares it for market, to the manufacturer of the pipes, to the importer and the retailer. There are other considerations, such as shipping, that add to the cost, and all of this has to get passed on to you, the consumer, Yet somehow, pipe smoking survives.
The specialty tobacco industry is much smaller than it used to be, yet the market demands new products, constantly. To some degree, this has weighed heavily on the brick and mortar tobacco shops. Even though their traffic is smaller than it was, the customer wants to choose from a broader selection of goods. Whether it’s pipe tobacco or cigars, variety is the name of the game, and it’s up to those of us who create and manufacture these items to meet demand. Some stores can’t, or refuse to keep up, and business suffers, maybe to the point of failure. Younger entrepreneurs look elsewhere for quick and easy profits, so there are fewer people to buy these concerns as the owners move toward retirement. Some stores who lease their properties find that the landlord doesn’t want to renew due to pressure from certain groups, insurance companies and the like, and in some states, the law doesn’t even allow smoking in a smokeshop. Yet somehow, pipe smoking survives.
Why does it survive? It does, in part, because we pipe smokers are a stubborn lot. This is part of our lives, and we’re not going to let go willingly, regardless of outside pressure. We enjoy it, and we feel that it adds to our quality of life. If the pressure is so great that our local stores are shuttered, we simply find another way to purchase the items we enjoy.
It survives because people recognize the relaxation and serenity that a pipe can bring. People looking to slow life down a bit are turning to our pastime as a way to accomplish this. The beauty of a well-made pipe is a, mostly, affordable way to bring artistry in our lives. If flavor is an important thing, eating out in fine restaurants can be costly, but even the most expensive tobaccos are a bargain in comparison.
It survives because some of the more tolerant people are willing to give us a pass, as they have fond memories that tie the aroma of pipe tobacco with a relative, or that kindly older gent who used to chat with them when they would walk past his house when they were children. Add to that the fact that the worst pipe tobacco smells better than the best cigarettes.
It also survives because we, predominantly, as a group are considerate and won’t light up at inappropriate times, unlike many cigarette smokers.
But more than anything else, it survives because we enjoy it, and refuse to give up something that makes life more tolerable in these crazy times. There’s a lot of gloom and doom being forecasted for our little hobby, but I don’t buy into it, because, well, we’ve survived to this point, and don’t plan to go anywhere.
Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe and www.pipesandcigars.com in Bethlehem, PA. He has been a pipe smoker and blender for over 30 years, and enjoys feedback from the pipe smoking public. You can reach Russ at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 1-800-494-9144 on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 am to 5 pm and Friday from 1 pm to 5 pm.
See our interview with Russ Ouellette Here