Smoking a pipe is such an enjoyable pastime that I sometimes feel bad for the people that have never had the pleasure of experiencing a fine tobacco in a briar pipe. I get excited about the prospect of a new pipe smoker and jump at the opportunity to welcome them into the world of pipes with encouragement and acceptance. No pipe smoker wants our hobby to die, but it will without new young adults coming into it. Getting new people into pipe smoking is best done via the Internet. No offense to any of the older generation that might not like to hear that, but it is nevertheless, a fact.
While spending time with Sykes Wilford, CEO and founder of SmokingPipes.com at the Chicago Pipe Show, we discovered two strong commonalities. We both have a passion for wanting to get new young people into pipe smoking, and we both have Internet-based businesses that strive to do so. We had a great time talking about this, and Sykes invited me to come to Little River, South Carolina (right near Myrtle Beach) to check out his operation.
I spent the entire day there on a recent Friday, and now welcome you to our “insider’s view” of SmokingPipes.com.
Sykes and I pulled into the parking lot at the same time and he walked me through the physical store, Low Country Pipe & Cigar. Even though the SmokingPipes.com website is the largest and best known part of the operation, Low Country Pipe & Cigar is an impressive 1,900 square foot store with tons of pipes, tobaccos , cigars, and a smoking lounge. If I lived in the area, it would be my 2nd home. As a matter of fact, I hung out in the smoking lounge all day Saturday, smoked pipes and used the wireless. They have about 6 – 7 tins of pipe tobacco for sampling.
|Inside Low Country Pipe & Cigar|
Once we got into the office, the boss had some employees waiting for his attention, so General Manager Brian Levine started giving me the tour of the SmokingPipes.com operation.
We started in a room filled with pipes where Adam Davidson was carefully inspecting a pipe under a special light and magnifying glass. Brian told me: “This room is where every pipe begins its life within the company. Each pipe that comes in, whether it is an estate pipe or a brand new pipe from the factory, gets an initial quality check. Adam goes through and reviews each pipe for different issues, such as finish issues, etc. Anything that a factory might do to a pipe that isn’t up to our standards will get the pipe rejected and sent back to the manufacturer. In an estate pipe case this is where we find any scratches, damages, and any construction problems that might get the pipe refused. Each pipe gets checked as it comes into the building, and then it gets checked again before it goes up on the website, and checked again before we ship it. This is where we queue up all the pipes for the upcoming updates. You can see the next two updates right here.
|Pipes About to Go on the Site & Adam Davidson Carefully Inspects a Pipe|
We update every Monday and Thursday. The estate pipes only go up on Thursday, but between Monday and Thursday we have about 250 to 300 pipes going onto the website. The queue here is so we can keep control of our product assortment, so that everybody inside the building–whether it be photography, or the restoration guys or everybody that does the product descriptions–knows where the pipes are and where they get put back to for the update. Each estate pipe has a conditions statement. Once it is cleaned and finished, Adam does the condition statement on it. Everybody knows where the next updates are, and we know what process they are in.”
“Behind us on all those racks are new pipes and the estate pipes that have made it past the QC stage after they’ve been restored, and are waiting for the next updates. We will go through them and choose different assortments for the updates. We have a fairly good routine for which pipes go up on which days, and we try not to put too many of the same type of pipes on the same updates. That shelf right there is all estate pipes that we own that are either cleaned, partially cleaned, completely uncleaned, or just waiting for their turn to go up into restoration. Everything over there on the shelves on the left is all brand new pipes that have made it past the QC process. They have been preset into inventory, and they are just waiting their turns.”
After being impressed by Brian’s description of how pipes are processed through the system and come and go from the special room where artisan pipe maker Adam Davidson presides, Sykes returned and took over the office tour from Brian. At this point, I met some more key staff before we sat down for our interview that went for much of the balance of the day.I have to tell you that it was quite pleasant to be smoking pipes all day while talking about pipes, the Internet and the pipe market for hours.
(Above Photos courtesy of SmokingPipes.com / Bobby Altman)
I was re-introduced to Susan Salinas, whom I met in Chicago. In Sykes words, “Susan is the Estate Manager and also the Purchasing Manager for everything that isn’t a pipe. We think of it in terms of tobacco, but it’s really more than that. In addition to managing the estate pipe restoration process, Susan purchases tobacco, accessories, cigars … everything that isn’t a pipe. ”
(Above Photos courtesy of SmokingPipes.com / Bobby Altman)
“Alyson Ranalli runs the merchandising department which is what makes everything go. She manages all of the photography, all of the copywriting, all of the data entry for the pipes. She also does product mix work for the updates.
For a given week, the reason we have a certain number of Petersons in different shapes and finishes, for example, are all decisions she makes. Since we’re always trying to keep a good selection of different pipes on the website, this is a fairly significant process.
Susan controls the product mix for the estates, but for all the new pipes Alyson is making that determination. And then Susan and Alyson also collaborate on the merchandising pieces for anything that’s not a pipe.
Since everything that’s not a pipe only gets entered into the site once, it ends up being only a few items a week as opposed to 300 items a week. With 300 pipes a week, it’s a monumental process.
(Above Photos courtesy of SmokingPipes.com / Bobby Altman)
Alyson also does a lot of the pipe purchasing. I used to do a lot of that and we folded that under her because she was already making a lot of the decisions that were predicated on my pipe purchasing. It was just more efficient to give that to Alyson. I still handle a lot of the individual pipe makers, but as far as Peterson, Dunhill, and other major manufacturers, that is Alyson’s job.
Interview with Sykes Wilford of SmokingPipes.com
After the tour, PipesMagazine.com Publisher, Kevin Godbee sat down to interview SmokingPipes.com Founder & President, Sykes Wilford.
PipesMagazine.com: SmokingPipes.com is one of the largest online retailers of pipes and tobaccos. You are also celebrating your 10th anniversary. Ten years in business is impressive in general, but there are other pipe retailers that have been around for 20, 50, some over 100 years. Some of them are run by gentlemen old enough to be your father.
As well, SmokingPipes.com is not your typical purveyor of pipes and tobaccos. The stereotypical pipe smoker, in fact it is a more mature gentleman and the business owners are typically as well, but you started this business when you were 19.
At 19-years old, what made you decide to not only smoke a pipe but to start a business around it?
Sykes Wilford: When I was 18, I was a freshman at Vanderbilt. I had the standard pretensions of freshman intellectual grandeur. I thought that smoking a pipe might be cool, and it would fit nicely with those pretensions.
So I bought a cheap pipe and some CVS whiskey flavored tobacco. I burned the crap out of myself and I ate slurpees from 7-11 for two days because that was all I could tolerate. That was my first pipe smoking experience.
One would think that after that, that I wouldn’t have smoked a pipe again. And I didn’t really much. I did it periodically. I didn’t really understand why anyone would do this for fun. It must only be similarly pretentious people. So I didn’t do it much for a little while. But I also needed a part time job and I needed a part time job I could walk to because I didn’t have a car.
So I went to places I thought would be fun to work at and I started asking if they were hiring. I asked at two used book stores before I happened to be in a pipe & tobacco store in Nashville. I was probably buying French cigarettes, which is equally freshman-in-college-pretentious. Almost as an afterthought I said “hey, are you guys hiring”? They said, yeah absolutely, and I was hired. I worked there part-time, 25 hours a week for a year. I absolutely fell in love, especially with pipes and pipe tobacco. I loved cigars too but my true love was the pipe. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I finally learned how to smoke a pipe properly and it was just a great experience.
At the same time, this was an old shop. He had been around for a while. Not “Iwan Ries Old”, or “Peretti’s Old” but they’d been around for a while and they had an electronic cash register and we did inventory on pen on paper.
[Editor’s note: references are to L.J. Peretti Company in Boston, which is 130 years old, and Iwan Ries and Co. in Chicago, which is 151 years old.]
You have to remember, this was 1999, the Internet was going to change the world and nothing out there would ever be the same. There was this sort of sense in the air of “dot com-ishness”. I was not a business guy: I was a History major, English Lit minor, and so it wasn’t that I had any knowledge or pretensions in that area. I just had this sense the Internet was going to change things. And, I was sort of vaguely interested in such things in sort of a gadgety-geeky kid kind of way; something I’ve never really grown out of.
So the following Spring of 2000, I registered SmokingPipes.com in April, and then incorporated the company in June or July, and we sold our first pipe in October. And when I say “we” that’s kind of code for “me.” I did have one guy working for me then, and we rented a little space in a small warehouse, in a less than impressive part of Nashville around Nolensville Pike, southeast of downtown, if you know the city. It was very cool, because it had awesome Mexican restaurants. I still think it’s a cool part of town, it was very cheap, very inexpensive warehouse space right near the railroad tracks.
PM.com: And you said you sold your first pipe, and that was online?
SW: Yes, oh yeah, and that was October of 2000.
PM.com: So you had the website first and what about the physical store in South Carolina?
SW: That’s much later.
PM.com: Interestingly one of the things that I got out of your beginnings as a pipe smoker is that you actually learned the value of having a professional tobacconist, where you learned the right way to smoke a pipe, and that your first experience was similar to most people’s first experience; you burned the heck out of your mouth.
SW: It was disastrous, yeah. I always wanted to have a store too.
PM.com: Or at least having somebody to show you, “Here’s the right way to do it, kid.”
SW: Founding it as an Internet business was the only way I could start. Physical stores take a lot more start-up capital. It’s not cost-free to run an Internet business. You have all the same costs to run it, but the start-up capital’s a little bit different for an online operation. I’m 20 years old at the time and as far as marketable skills go, I didn’t have any. I wasn’t going to bring anything to the table, except for being young and knowing about pipes and being able to write. That’s really all I had to start with, I really had no idea what I was doing. I almost killed the business a few times along the way, because I had no idea what I was doing.
PM.com: Going back to the stereotype that pipe smoking is old fashioned, and perhaps contradicting that; about a year and a half ago, the Wall Street Journal, certainly a well-respected newspaper, printed an article in which you were mentioned and quoted, and the article said that pipe smoking once again was becoming popular on college campuses. Of course that is good news for the pipe smoking hobby.
How prevalent is this in reality and what could be done to create more interest in pipe smoking amongst young adults?
SW: I was less than delighted with the Wall Street Journal piece. She didn’t know anything about the pipe world. This was dumped in her lap. This was partially my fault. I had never talked to national or international media before. Now I’ve done this a couple of times and I’m a little bit better at it.
The following day (after the Wall St. journal interview) I took a bunch of people up to Cornell & Diehl to learn about tobacco while Craig and I worked on business. Craig worked in PR in New York for 30 years and he said; “you should have talked to me before you talked to that woman because there is a certain way you need to convey your message when you are talking to major media”. That was my mistake. I should have given her the sound bite she wanted and traded it for what I wanted to say and make sure that the company name appeared in print and make sure that she didn’t use a story that she had from some other publication instead of something I told her. I should have kept her much more on task and not let it go on for quite so long and give her so much opportunity to do what she wanted to do with it.
PM.com: So you spent two hours on the phone with her and got one sentence and not the sentence you would prefer.
SW: It was the sentence she wanted. I knew she was fishing for the “iPhone in one hand and pipe in the other” sentence during the interview. I had no real problem with that sentence, but I wanted to speak about the young pipe smoker trend and she didn’t want to hear that. She wanted me as the example of the young pipe smoker. I would have preferred to have been quoted as an industry authority on pipe smoking trends, and spoke about that instead of being used as a young pipe smoker example.
PM.com: Isn’t it still a generally positive article at least from the point of saying; hey you can be a young guy in college and smoke a pipe and be cool … that smoking a pipe is cool again?
SW: People ask me this a lot since that article and even before that. My quick answer, which has been my quick answer for awhile is: “My goodness I hope so!”
But we definitely see a trend and I didn’t really notice it until after the article came out, at least more so than before. I am not sure if they were ahead of the curve or it just seemed like a good fluff piece for the Journal.
I do know that I’ve seen younger pipe smokers at pipe shows. I believe our median age has come down a little bit as far as customer base. We are seeing a greater number of younger customers. Our demographic historically has been skewed towards men in their 50s and 60s. And I think we are starting to see that cease to be the case.
PM.com: Are there some things that you think the industry in general, or SmokingPipes.com specifically can be doing, or is doing to help promote new people coming into the hobby?
SW: This is something I’ve given a lot of thought to. How do we reach people who are potential pipe smokers but not actual pipe smokers? And how do we do it navigating the anti-tobacco climate? How do we do it with such a small industry?