How does one describe the Chicago show? Superlatives are easy to pile on, and most of them try to encompass the fact that it’s big, really big. Make that really, really big. It’s awe-inspiring to see so many thousands of pipes, fresh from the maker’s hands or vintage estates; it’s heady to be surrounded by clouds of smoke from hundreds of happy puffers; and it’s just a whole lot of fun to be around folks who are as fanatical as I am about pipes and tobacciana. This was my first trip to the Big Show, and the way I’ll always think of it, the essence of it for me, is that it is all about making connections.
The size and scope of the show is truly overwhelming. Officially titled the Chicagoland International Pipe and Tobacciana Show, it was held again this year at the Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles, perhaps because it is the only place large enough to accommodate a show this size in the entire Midwest, and accommodate they do. The entire trip was my usual last-minute affair, and I arrived at the front desk asking if they had any cancellations—they’d been booked solid for the show as early as two months back. Fortune smiled on me, however, and I not only procured a tower room, but also was upgraded to a king single because it was the only clean one available. Throughout my stay the staff was attentive and friendly, and I only regret that I didn’t have a longer trip planned so that I could avail myself of the resort’s other amenities like the golf course and spa. I begin telling myself that there’s always next year.
The first connection I make is with our own Kevin Godbee and Brian Levine. Though I’ve been writing for the magazine for over a year, Kevin and I had only corresponded through email or by phone. Amazingly, his teeth are even whiter in person. The three of us sat down for a quick lunch before heading in to the pre-show, and got to know each other a bit better. I’d had a great time chatting with Brian on the phone for the radio interview, and we shared that kinship of fellows who have the same favorite tobaccos. When I showed him the tin of late 50s Escudo that I’d brought to share, I knew I’d made a friend for life.
The staff at Pheasant Run was attentive and friendly, to a person. Taking a breather from the already hectic Friday night schedule of meetings and introductions, I dropped in to the smoking tent and struck up a conversation with the bartender, Nick. He’s been working the show for the last 5 years, and actually requests to do so. He’s not a pipe smoker, and doesn’t love bartending, but ever since his first show he’s been coming back because he finds the craftsmanship amazing, the people friendly and interesting, and the entire atmosphere of the show to be relaxing and almost a vacation for him.
The Friday pre-show in the smoking tent was comfortably small, and it occurs to me that it’s about the size of the entire New York pipe show. Not to knock the NY show, but it’s not even in the same league as Chicago. Kevin and I meandered through the aisles, indulging his latest collection of Comoys and meeting the vendors. I stopped to chat a bit with Andy Camire, a.k.a. DocWatson on the forum, to whom I owe my first taste of vintage Escudo. I originally met Andy through PipesMagazine.com, and have subsequently seen him at the New York show and the annual Kaywoodie Christmas event, and he strikes me as always being the happiest guy in the room. People that you run into once or twice at these events quickly become old friends, and that’s what this brotherhood of the briar is all about.
There was more than a little trepidation that I was going to see some pipes that I simply couldn’t live without, pipes that would call to me from across the room, break down all my willpower, and empty my bank account. Of course, this happened pretty early on in the pre-show. I was immediately entranced by the work of two Greek artisans, both from Athens. Their work was polished and precise, showing a firm grounding in the classics and yet displaying a playful, exuberant side that was extremely appealing. I had a brief chat with them and made plans to follow up with a more in-depth interview the following day. It took all my resolve to walk away from their table, still trying to convince myself that I wasn’t going to buy anything on this trip.
Kevin and Brian had a PipesMagazine.com radio show presentation in the smoking tent to round off Friday’s events, and I was not surprised that the most avid attendees were in the younger age bracket. It’s quite apparent that the website has really struck a chord with the Internet Generation, I suppose myself included. The scheduled events completed for the evening, it was time to sit and relax over a few bowls with my fellows from the New York Pipe Club contingent. Hank Saatchi, one of our members and a well-respected reseller in the community, has been coming to the show for the last 13 years, so I tapped him for some veteran advice about carvers to look out for; he was excited to see Rad Davis, Bruce Weaver, Scott Klein, and as always, Tom Eltang. Joining the NYPC contingent was another first-time attendee, Tyrone Griggs. Though he was primarily a cigar smoker, he’d been drawn to the world of pipes from chatting with us, and had some great observations to make about the differences between them. He was amazed at how open and ready to talk about their passion pipe smokers were, a bit of a difference from the one-upmanship of the cigar world. Cigars, he noted, are “all about the band”, and once you’ve enjoyed them, they’re gone. With pipes, though, there is the instrument itself, which can easily outlast its owner, not to mention the plethora of accoutrements and ancillary items that are part of the hobby. Pipes have a built-in legacy of sorts; they are contrivances with which memories are made. After talking with him a bit, it occurred to me that I’d met him a couple years ago during our annual International Pipe Smoking Day celebration at De La Concha tobacconist in New York, where he was a regular. We had been talking about the same thing way back then, and had a laugh at how our paths were now again crossing in Chicago.
Saturday was the main event, and it was a whirlwind of pipes, tobaccos, and meeting people. It really is too much to try to put into words; nevertheless, I’ll make an attempt to. I’m most eager to share my “discovery” of the two Greek carvers, Kostas Gourvelos and Konstantinos Anastasopoulos. This was also their first trip to the Chicago show, in fact their first visit to the US, and their excitement was palpable. When asked what they thought of America, they responded with one voice, “Pipes!” They were kind enough to let me sit down with them and take a load off my feet, and I took the opportunity to grill them a little about their experience thus far. Their work was getting a lot of positive feedback, and deservedly so. Several of the more eye-catching numbers really drew people in for a closer look—for example Kostas’s Witch Hat, or Konstantinos’s Tulip.
It’s obvious that they both have strong foundation skills in engineering, as well as the artistry to execute such innovative interpretations of the old standards. What cemented my appreciation of their work was how they arrived at pipemaking. Konstantinos said that he liked smoking a pipe but wanted something a bit more modern, something that appealed to his personal aesthetic—so he apprenticed under Kostas and learned how to make his own. Kostas has a background in engineering, and more than a decade’s experience on both metal and wood lathing; he came to pipe carving, and in particular the invention of a novel condensation barrier he calls “Aspida”, because he wasn’t satisfied with what anyone else was making and so designed his own solution. Here were two men of separate generations but a single mind when it comes to the artisan’s compulsion to create and improve. And then it called to me—the siren song of a pipe that needs a home. It sat there on the table, looking up at me with its lone puppy-dog eye, preening for my appraisal. Officially designated the 1513 Smooth Free Form, it’s a breathtaking zephyr of a pipe that might be called an inverted volcano; for me, it’s the logical continuation of the feeling of my old favorite, the Medico Jet Stream. It was in a price range that I could justify to myself, and so I did just that.
There was never any question that this acquisition was to be a smoker; after talking with the Greeks at length I excused myself to the smoking tent to have a proper introduction to my new favorite. Though I had been smoking London Burley Blend voraciously the last couple weeks in preparation for its review here, and consider it a great smoke to break in a new bowl with, this little gem was calling for a different flavor—something light yet spicy, something with a little pizzazz of its own. Lucky for me Hearth & Home had their full array out at the show, and I helped myself to a chunk of another favorite of mine, our own NY Pipe Club Bedloe’s Island. Believe me or don’t, but this stuff would still be a favorite even if I didn’t have such a personal connection to it—it’s a wonderfully rich blend, and I apologize to anyone who came after me and found an empty tin. Speaking of Russ, it was great to catch up with him, first for an inside scoop about the recreation of The Smoker blends, and then for an evening bullshit session with Kevin and Steve Morrisette. We began discussing pipes, of all things, but the conversation quickly veered into music, another shared passion common among our ilk. Music was again the topic with a couple of the PipesMagazine.com forum members I spoke with, and it was great to put the proverbial face on a few of the screen names I regularly see.
Now that the PAD fever was sufficiently quenched, I was able to meet with a few people I had on my official itinerary. Per Jensen was kind enough to chat with me for a bit about the history of some Mac Baren blends I’ve slated for review, as well as a sneak peek at some forthcoming projects. Rest assured you’ll hear it here first. Premal Chheda gave me the low-down on the Smokers’ Haven blends, also slated for review, and our conversation somehow veered into home-cooked food and an invite to dinner with his parents the next time I find myself in Ohio. I tried to tell him I’m the guy that really will cash in on that free meal invite, probably at the most inopportune time imaginable, but he insisted, so I eagerly relented. Yet another reason to attend the Columbus show, as if I needed one.
Another highlight was running into Mark Ryan of Daughters & Ryan tobacco. Being able to personally thank the guy that single-handedly saved Perique tobacco was a real treat for me, and we had a great time hearing about all the news from Saint James. Unfortunately, all the cool composure I had later in the day was absent in the morning, when I ran into the maestro himself, Paolo Becker. If you don’t know, I’m an ardent admirer of his work; his pipes speak to me deeply, and the several I own are the most treasured among my collection. However, my caffeine-deprived and somewhat star-struck system was only able to stammer a garbled, "Uhm, hi, it’s really great to be here!" when I found him at his table. I really can’t blame him for looking at me like I had two heads, and in my sudden panic I reasoned it was better to run off and appear busy rather than stand at his table and continue to drool on his pipes. Hopefully he won’t remember me at the next show; thank God I didn’t try to ask him for his autograph like I’d intended.
To be honest, I’m firmly in the curmudgeonly camp of introverts. I generally eschew the noise and bustle of crowds and unknown faces, preferring to keep quiet company and my own counsel. All that was out the window, though, at this granddaddy of all pipe shows. I couldn’t tell you how many times the phrase "like a kid in a candy store" was used, and it was certainly apt for everyone there. I’m glad I made the last-minute decision to attend Chicago, and am already planning next year’s trip—not to mention Kansas City, and maybe even Columbus. On the return flight I had a moment of doubt about spending a bit more money than I had anticipated—then I reached to my breast pocket to have another look at the pipe I’d bought from the Greek. It was strikingly beautiful when seen against the backdrop of the clouds, its graceful form suggesting a creature in flight. It reminded me that in this pipe, this simple wooden sculpture, were now reposited all the memories of my first Chicago pipe show, all the friends I met and made there, and every future smoke I enjoy from it will rekindle that connection.