By Bob Tate
4noggins.com was started in 2005 by Richard Gottlieb. In the five short years that he has been in business, Rich has grown 4noggins.com into one of the more trusted and successful online pipe tobacco vendors that there is. He and his wife are the only employees of the company and they offer great customer service to all of their customers.
They have a great selection of pipe tobacco and have recently started selling a larger variety of pipes. Along with his retail sales, Rich also offers consignment sales to and for his customers. I had the opportunity to interview Rich and ask him a few questions.
PM: What year did you start 4noggins.com?
Rich: 4noggins was started in 2005 as a part time venture. It wasn’t until October, 2006 that I decided to go full steam ahead with it and make it a full time business.
PM: How long have you been involved in the pipe and pipe tobacco industry?
Rich: Actually, I started smoking a pipe in my mid twenties, about 1974, when my wife, then girlfriend, bought me a Dunhill Shell Briar at the Dunhill store on 5th Ave in NYC. I truly enjoyed it and remember going to a local B&M in White Plains, NY for advice on tobaccos. The owner suggested a bulk Dunhill blend called My Mixture 965 and explained what Latakia was and how it is used in English blends. That was it!!! I was hooked on Latakia ever since.
Children, business, family, and other hobbies evolved, and smoking a pipe was put on the back burner for many years. It wasn’t until the early 2000’s that I dug my old pipes out of a closet, got on the internet, and realized a whole new world of forums. Since then I have gotten more and more involved in this business.
PM: What did you do before you started 4noggins.com?
Rich: Since graduating college in the early 1970’s, I have been involved in the automobile industry. I started in the car rental business and soon expanded that into an auto leasing business. After many years of that, I ventured into buying and selling cars at automobile auctions and buying and selling to new car dealers. A move to Vermont in 1988 brought me to running a Volvo Dealership until I decided to take 4noggins.com full time, which was October, 2006. I never looked back and I’m having the time of my life.
PM: What made you decide to start 4noggins.com?
Rich: This business actually started by accident. I could never have imagined being an e-tailer of tobacco!! I had bought two tins of a blend and after a few bowls from the first tin, decided it wasn’t for me. What to do????
Put the unopened tin on eBay, of course. Well, that was certainly an eye opener. I received Emails from all over the world asking if I could ship to their country and some other questions that will remain confidential. I had no idea that shipping tobacco internationally had so many restrictions.
At that time, 2005 or so, the few e-tailers in the business, did not ship out of the USA, so I figured that I would. I would buy sale items or closeouts from the other retailers, mark them up $1.00 or $2.00, and then send emails to eBayers that bought from me in the past. The emails turned into a list mailed every week, then a small, economical website, then buying directly from blenders and distributors, and that grew into what you see today.
PM: What sets 4noggins.com apart from other online retailers?
Rich: That’s easy…service!!! I try to ship orders out within 24 hours, and I use USPS Priority Mail. I try not to let one missing tin hold up an order, so I’ll ship it and send whatever was not in stock out as soon as I receive it. No need to hold up a whole order for one tin. Another plus is that I do my best, although not perfectly, to keep the inventory that’s up as “live” as possible.
PM: Is there a particular brand of pipe that you sell more than any other?
Rich: Pipe sales are a fairly recent addition to 4noggins. Of the few lines that I carry, I would have to say Peterson is the best seller, followed by Savinelli. I’m selling about 25 Peterson’s and 15 Savinelli’s per week. The other pipes make up about 20 per week.
PM: Do you have many new pipe smokers calling you for advice on their first pipe purchase?
Rich: Yes!!! All with the same story as mine.
“Smoked in my 20’s, put the pipes away, now the kids are gone and it’s my turn. Back then I smoked XXX. What do you recommend I smoke now?”
Boy, if I could answer that one I wouldn’t have to work anymore. It’s so subjective; one man’s scotch is another man’s poison.
PM: Do you create and blend your 4noggins House Blends or do you have someone who does it for you?
Rich: All of the 4noggins blends, except for two, were developed by me and are blended in small batches by me. It’s the best quality control one could hope for.
Rich: Life dictates the names of many of my blends. Bald Headed Teacher is the name of a great Reggae song that I heard while sailing in the Caribbean and couldn’t get the tune out of my head.
Three Blind Moose came from when my wife and I were driving down the road from our house, we rounded a turn and 3 Moose were standing in the road. If you know anything about Moose, they don’t spook too easily, so headlights and horns won’t make them budge. After a few minutes of trying both of those tactics, my wife asked; “Are those 3 Moose blind?” And the rest is history.
Some of the other blends are names of Neil Young tunes or family members. Whatever seems to hit me at the time becomes the name of a blend.
PM: On average, how many pounds of your house blends do you sell in a month?
Rich: That’s a tough question and I don’t know if I’d like to make it public. I’m sure my competition will be reading this article!! I will say that my house blends have become immensely popular and because of them I’ve created many, many loyal followers.
PM: What is your best selling blend?
Rich: Bald Headed Teacher would be the best seller followed by Three Blind Moose. The other blends are not far behind. I’ve been very lucky in that all of the 4noggins blends sell extremely well.
PM: Have you noticed any trends in your sales?
Rich: There are two trends that I see developing. One is the cigarette and/or cigar smoker wanting to quit for a variety of reasons and taking up pipe smoking; many times encouraged by a significant other. The other is the younger, college age kid, bothered by the negativity of cigarettes, buying his first pipe and experimenting with different pipe tobaccos. I definitely see a lot of newbies taking to the pipe. Maybe it’s because of the stigma attached to cigarettes and the decline in cigar smoking.
Rich: When I started the first website I didn’t have very many items on it and it looked “empty”. What else would someone buy over the internet??? Why I’ll just go tap my neighbor’s Maple tree and sell some of that Vermont Maple Syrup!! I never would have thought I’d sell so much. Lot’s of customers include a small jug just for fun and end up re-ordering fairly consistently. They all can’t believe what a difference there is between real Vermont Maple Syrup and the store bought “stuff”.
PM: I have bought some on several occasions and I must say that it is the best maple syrup that I have ever tasted, but now back to pipes and pipe tobacco. What are some of your favorite pipe shapes?
Rich: I am a clencher, so my go to shapes are Canadians, or 1/4 bents. Most of my smoking is done while working and a full bent just won’t do it for me. I like to have a pipe in my mouth that is lightweight and on the smaller side, maybe a Dunhill Group 3. My new favorite shape is a Zulu. A Peterson Killarney 268 Fishtail has recently won my heart.
PM: Do you have a favorite genre of tobacco that you like to smoke?
Rich: I started off with English blends and lately find myself enjoying Virginia and Virginia/Perique blends as of late. I never got into Aromatics, even as a newbie they never did much for me. I have now gotten away from the heavy Latakia blends and just enjoy a nice easy smoke while I’m getting my customers orders ready or sitting at the computer updating my website.
PM: About how many bowls per week do you smoke?
Rich: I smoke about 3-4 bowls a day; maybe less on the weekends because I’m out and about.
PM: You also do consignment sales as well. How does one go about having you sell something for them?
Rich: That’s another new venture that has been tremendously successful. If someone has some older tins they wish me to sell, a simple email will do. I will take photos, list them on my website, and sell them. My commission is 30% of the selling price and I can either write a check for the proceeds or, what has been happening as of late, paying the consignee with the tobaccos of his choice. It is fun, educational, and a win/win for all.
PM: You and I have talked before on a few different occasions and one of the things that we’ve talked about was a situation that happened some time back. The situation was this; you were selling some older tobacco on E-Bay and the prices went pretty high. There were some people in the online community that got pretty upset about that and were accusing you of, for lack of a better term, price gouging. Would you like to clarify what the situation was so that you can clear the air and let everyone know exactly what it is that you do and what happened?
Rich: This happened a few months ago when a customer had some bags of Stonehaven and Penzance that he wanted to sell and he asked me to take them on consignment. Considering that this is part of my business, and it’s how I make my living, I said that I would. I first listed them on eBay and they sold for a good amount. Then the forums caught wind of it and all hell broke loose. I was accused of price gouging and not having my customers’ best interest at heart.
So I took them off eBay and put them on my website for about 30% less than they had sold on eBay. It wasn’t long before I was sold out. My answer to those that lashed out at me is this. I put these items out there and there was no pressure from me whatsoever to buy them. The buyers bought them because they wanted them, and they could. Those that thought the price was too high had the option of not buying them. A free market society works that way.
PM: 4noggins.com now offers Pipe Smoking Starter Kits. Can you tell us a little bit about what they contain?
Rich: Yes, this was actually Kevin’s idea [How to Quit Cigarettes – Smoke a Pipe!] and I went along with it. The thought with all the new smokers out there, why not make it easy for them to get started. Most new smokers really don’t know where to start or what they need. Obviously, a pipe is the most important item. But with that pipe one needs a tamper, a pouch, some pipe cleaners, and some basic tobacco to set the tone. It’s certainly not a money maker, but if it will help a few more people enjoy this hobby, it’s worth the effort. Hopefully they’ll get the hang of it and enjoy it enough to start experimenting with different tobaccos and even get into some better pipes.
PM: With the holiday season fast approaching, have you increased your stock to get ready for the gift giving season?
Rich: I certainly have. I have been trying to become more involved in pipe sales but time seems to be a problem. I currently have about 75 Petersons and Savinelli pipes waiting to be photographed and measured so they can be listed on my website. The one thing I pride myself on is that the photo you see on my site is the actual pipe for sale, along with actual measurements of each particular pipe. I feel the buyer should know what he is looking at as to the weight and dimensions of each pipe. He can then make an educated choice, possibly by comparing these to his current pipes.
PM: Rich, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to have this interview with us.
I hope that you have enjoyed our interview with Rich and be sure to visit 4noggins.com. While you are picking up some tobacco, accessories, and maybe a pipe or two, be sure to add some of his great Vermont Maple Syrup to your order and give it a try. If you like maple syrup, I am sure that you will love their syrup; I highly recommend it!