The State of the Pipe Community as Reflected at Pipe Shows
Chris P. Bacon
In the fall of 2005, a post on the Pipe and Tobacco Collector’s Blog sounded an alarm about the “demise of the pipe show” which, in the context of a somewhat standard gripe session about the state of pipe shows as a whole, made a provocative and impressive claim that predicted a coming storm accurately. The post stated that pipe shows, in overemphasizing the retail aspect of their gatherings, had become mere marketplaces, and this transformation dissolved the important yet somewhat intangible communal aspect upon which, at least anecdotally, the entire pipe community was based. Aside from striking gold in the mid-2000’s with a substantial lucrative boom in high-end pipe sales brought about by an influx of artisan carvers earlier in the decade, the pipe shows had nothing to show for decades of development and were in danger of becoming unexciting flea-markets, its visitors disengaged from the fact that, beyond the buying and selling, there was something missing, something important and communal and real.
I re-read this 2005 blog post prior to attending Chicago’s 2012 show this past week and threw it against the wall all weekend as I contemplated the state of the Chicago show, and the pipe shows in general, as we enter a new era brought about by smoking banishment and the deflation of the “pipe bubble” that had sustained many an investor years ago, setting the stage for the blog post in question.
For what took place in Chicago last weekend was a genuine attempt to bring back elements of pipe shows as a whole that had somehow disappeared from view in the rush to emphasize the retail aspect of the show, as the caveat from 2005 bannered, and the successes in doing so were not solely evident from the vantage point of one single subgroup—the carver, the retailer, the pipe guy, all with their disparate interests. But if one examines the pipe show as an opportunity to engage, to bond, to fellowship with other pipe enthusiasts, it was a rousing success, unquestionably the best Chicago show in years. It wasn’t that sort of show for everyone, mind you; if you attended looking to strike gold but didn’t, or find a buyer for your such-and-such and left disappointed, then you may not agree. But the fact that such diverse agendas exist under one roof is critical: we have arrived at the point where the fragmentation and diffusion of the pipe community is so vast that it isn’t possible to label an entire gathering a “success” based upon one dimension. This diffusion is, in itself, an indication of success.
I witnessed at Chicago this year the rebirth of the pipe show in multiple ways: as a barometer of the health of something called the “pipe community”, it was apparent now there were multiple “pipe communities”—diverse yet intertwined, each relying on the other as a sort of mutual admiration society in flux, the old school (which I have come to affectionately call “The Charatan Generation”) watching as the New Pipe Community becomes fragmented into an array of subgroups. These subgroups are not infinite: they appear to be centered around many possible vortices, such as by interest in one type or shape of pipe, or a singular theme (even the phrase “retailers” appears limited in scope at this point), or political, social, or religious affiliation (there really is something called Christian Pipe Smokers, and their representative numbers are pretty impressive), and so on. It’s an exciting moment to have attended this show, subplots and all.
The pipe show as a barometer of a “pipe community”.
I don’t recall a time when I have ever thought that there was a singular thing called a “pipe community”, but that phrase has almost no validity anymore. Nowadays, there are so many pipe “communities” that are brought to rule that I don’t think you can go to the Chicago show anymore and experience it all. Diversity is key, and anything goes at Chicago, as evidenced by the almost overloaded schedule of events, workshops, meetings, and presentations which were more than window dressing. They were substantial opportunities to tune in and communicate, to believe and behold and make sense of the deeper meaning of the art that entrances us. This was the closest the Chicago (or any) show has come to a full-blown trade show in my memory, a blur of ideas and quick-tempo events stretching until well past bedtime in the tent and elsewhere, so that those preferring to smoke may not feel left out of the action because they retreated to the tent to escape and retire. It was a nice touch to use the tent as an opportunity to include people.
I developed a feeling that the show, in its efforts to be inclusive of the diversity of the New Pipe Communities, had finally acknowledged the independent, almost rebellious nature of the act of smoking that binds us as fans, and as free spirited persons. As we are confronted with social ostracism elsewhere, and an occasional feeling that pipes are possibly simultaneously “hip” and anachronistic, the CPCC answered this dilemma by crafting an event, a happening which allowed us to find and indulge and share. The fragmentation of the community has allowed for this shift in attention to detail at the show itself, and I certainly hope the other pipe shows took good notes. It appears that the CPCC has learned the lessons of the aforementioned blog post about how simply allowing for a retail exchange isn’t going to be a sufficient draw to get people to want to come to a pipe show. Chicago’s show this year upped the ante by placing these diverse communities into context: the subgroups of the New Pipe Community are not hidden from view, or simply asterisks on a show program, they are front-and-center.
For those who recall the first tent show at Chicago years ago, you likely remember that there was a degree of skepticism surrounding the effect of the indoor smoking ban on the pipe show itself. It’s safe to say that by now this skepticism has been replaced by an almost anticipatory expectation that the same tent which may have inspired initial ridicule has now morphed into one of the most unique social venues associated with pipe smoking anywhere. The tent has become the visible core of the entire Chicago show, where the camaraderie of the unique interest that binds us is permitted and on full display, and where the show itself is essentially formed: novices and experts, hagglers and dealers, the interested and the curious, and old friends and strangers meet, drink (quite a bit, actually), and gather. In addition to being a social venue again this year, the CPCC reaffirmed the tent as a formal opportunity for the retail aspect of the show by moving its pre-show and swap into the tent to allow for smoking. What resulted was the literal (and one imagines, from here on out, irreversible) expansion of the showcase itself into a three-day showcase with quite a bit of validation of the concept of a “smoking show”. This decision resolves the interesting problem noted by show-goers here and elsewhere as to which “type” of show they prefer, smoking or not. In Chicago 2012’s case, they’ve got both. As always, the tent provided show-goers the opportunity to make long-lasting memories. Or, you could just disconnect from even those who come to disconnect. For those who have never attended, the tent itself is one of those huge industrial jobs that takes quite a while to assemble, and as the 2012 Chicago Pipe Show crowd found out Friday, can also get pretty humid and sultry if the conditions are right. No matter—it’s endearing itself in ways that are unexpected and fun.
Beyond its utility as a place for smoking respite, the tent is a metaphor for the community itself. Given this generation’s endless opportunities to connect without actually connecting (from message boards, to Skype chats, to other rituals), the tent is a scene, a haven to combat the loneliness resulting from the inherent disconnectedness of the YouTube era. I sensed this when I randomly spent time in the tent early on Sunday morning when it was empty. It struck me as a sort of landscape; the only sounds were the distant buzz of golf course maintenance equipment and the occasional “clink” of ashtrays placed on tables by the janitorial staff. I didn’t ever think that this tent, which was such an expensive risk, could take on so much meaning, but it has become a special place. What goes on in that tent on any given day at the pipe show is an almost spiritual and communal thing, something far greater than its physical space, something far more important than an electronic communication can encapsulate. Virtual pipe communities constitute superficial attempts to replicate connectedness, a human element to what is a very human art; this is the double-edged blade of responsibility assumed by the New Pipe Community. The opportunity provided by the tent cannot be replaced by any virtual community, however important those virtual worlds may be to sustaining things in other ways. It’s up to the ones who assume the leadership role to realize the essential importance of the tent and the show which has embraced it.
The Charatan Generation welcomes The New Pipe Communities.
I guess it’s no surprise that we live in an era where a group of young college-age men and women feel excited enough about an opportunity to engage in an literal (as opposed to a virtual) communal gathering that they appear in customized t-shirts proclaiming themselves the “Collegiate Pipe Smokers” (with a Latin phrase, naturally, indecipherable as it may have been to me). Similarly, I counted no less than 6 pipe carvers who were attending their very first show, and they appeared to be doing quite well. I mean that ideologically as well as financially; some of the new pipe carvers really have something to say in their work that is challenging and exhilarating. The evolution of the pipe community into distinct but interrelated subgroups is now at its visible extreme: the Charatan Generation gives way to a group of young enthusiasts who may never smoke a Charatan at all, but are genuinely respectful of those who do, as they propel the pipe community toward the outer limits of creativity and individuality. A collegiate pipe t-shirt-wearer told me, “I’d like to join UPCA, they do a lot of cool stuff”, a somewhat blanket statement but one which was said in the most earnest enthusiasm, as if the organization itself had enough of an imagination and energy to contain this crew hell-bent on not allowing the New Pipe Community to be ignored, intent on taking the Charatan Generation on the ride with them. This realization was important and exciting to me, as I can’t recall a pipe show at Chicago in the past decade where I saw so many younger pipe enthusiasts whose hearts were in the right place.
It dawned on me that, roughly a decade ago, a new group of exciting pipe carvers emerged who gave the pipe community a good-natured kick in the pants, which led inexorably to the highs of the mid-00’s and the inevitable letdown experienced by the author of the pipe blog post I recollected. Now, it seems the same thing is happening again: we may be in a post-something era where the Crosbys and Johnsons are the standard-bearers, and the pipe carvers and fans of the newest sort are speaking not to the conservative clang of Charatan and Parker and Radice, but to their heroes who emerged in the 2000’s. This happens a lot, and it’s interesting to see we’re at that point now. I’m reminded of the fact that there are musicians today for whom something recorded in the 1990’s represents “classic rock”.
Is there room at this table?
Saturday, I held a pipe in my hand by a pipe carver who was attending his very first show. He was eager and excited to have anyone stop by and admire his stuff—it didn’t seem to matter if I wasn’t going to make a purchase or not (although I am certain that the fact that I did was appreciated). I thought of this: his pipes weren’t “his take on a bulldog”, or “his version of so-and-so’s billiard”, or any other responsorial name-drop. In fact, he never mentioned to me who he was admiring, studying under, or biting. It seems acceptable, finally, that a “bulldog-looking pipe” can now be called whatever its craftsman wishes to call it, no matter the name of the shape it best resembles. In other words, we’re at a liberating moment, and I saw this everywhere in the past weekend at Chicago.
If we truly feel that the real cannot be removed, and that pipe shows themselves play some sort of role aside from providing a sales venue, then we should welcome the challenge posed by this year’s show at Chicago to make good on the impressive opportunity to expand the New Pipe Communities by even more diverse persons and interests. There’s a forlorn but anticipatory undercurrent at the Chicago Pipe Show that the arrival of Monday represents the closing of a door, the end of an opportunity to retreat and learn and fellowship, and the resumption of the routines of life, as it were. This year, I took something hopeful back, a sense that the pipe show and the community it drew together were both robust and headed towards new ideas while taking the older ones along. I used to gauge the show by what sort of loot I took back home, but doing so this year almost seemed inadequate in explaining how strongly the show has come back from the dualities of an economic recession and a smoking ban. It looks like those two challenges have been stared down, and the New Pipe Community that has emerged from the changes promises to keep the flame.