If you can handle the logistics, hosting might make business sense
By William C. Nelson
Americans, for all of our famous individualism, are joiners at heart when it comes to our hobby interests. Country clubs, hunting and boating and fishing clubs, amateur radio clubs, car clubs, gardening clubs—name your passion and chances are you can find a nearby group of like-minded souls eager to socialize.
Mike Garr, president of United Pipe Clubs of America (UPCA), says the pipe-club scene is growing. “When we started the UPCA in 1992, we had six member clubs,” he says. “Last year we had 42 members. As pipe smoking has increased recently, so have pipe clubs, despite stiffer smoking regulations.”
Yet in many towns, and even in some big cities, the situation for pipe puffers is not quite so clubby. San Antonio, the second-largest city in Texas, with well over a million residents, has no pipe club that we could find. Meanwhile, in the modest burg of West Bend, Wisconsin, population 31,000, the Main Street Pipers happily convene at Smokes On Main, a local tobacconist. A sort of crazy-quilt club geography is perhaps to be expected in a nation of disparate smoking laws and cultures. Big-city traffic can demotivate would-be participants in some locations. Plus, a booming pipe club depends to a large extent on large personalities. Not every town has a pipe-smoking leader to answer the call. So really, the pipe smoker with access, in a reasonable driving distance, to a bustling pipe club can call himself lucky.
Many successful clubs, of course, have a long tradition of meeting regularly at a favorite local brick-and-mortar tobacco shop.
On first blush it would seem logical that most any pipe shop would welcome the chance to host pipe club meetings. Garr points out that “because B&M shops often are exempt from indoor smoking bans, they become a natural place for a pipe club to meet.” He adds, “It seems to me anytime a B&M owner or manager can attract customers to their store, especially for a pipe club, it enhances customer loyalty. As a result, customers are less likely to buy pipes and tobaccos online and more likely to buy them at the shop.”
Indeed, encouraging the growth of a cohesive group of enthusiasts can only stoke interest in what the store is selling. Moreover, the educational benefits of club membership can create freer spending on higher-priced items. Clubs give the pipe smoker both a reason and a way to take the hobby more seriously. The store, just by providing a warm room with a roof, is aiding the creation of discerning clients who, it is hoped, will egg one another on to more elevated and informed (and expensive) tastes—effective ambassadors to the hobby who will bring still more devotees into the fold. If nothing else, hosting a pipe club meeting is one way to get buyers out of their living rooms, away from the internet and into an actual shop. All of this is to say that pipe clubs are good for the hobby, which makes them also good for business in the long run.
Finding a welcoming tobacco shop obviously benefits the club, particularly if the business accommodates smoking indoors. Clubs without resort to a comfortable, smoke-friendly room are apt to find themselves roaming, month to month, from one restaurant or pub patio to the next, ever in search of suitable meeting spots, places both convenient to members and hospitable to their smoldering. It can be quite the puzzle finding such a place. The outdoor cafe surroundings to which these club meetings are often consigned leave members ducking the disapproving glances of nonsmokers or battling the weather. (Have you ever lived through a club meeting outdoors in a sleet storm?) ? Some clubs go for years in this crummy, itinerate way, wandering like a troupe of vagabonds, with no fortress to call home, to lend cohesion or any sense of permanence.
It would benefit us all if there were more clubs in more cities. So should your tobacco shop get involved and provide a group of dispossessed pipe puffers a home base? Should you even start down that path?
It depends. Club/tobacconist chemistry certainly works for Jon David Cole, who owns The Country Squire tobacco shop in Jackson, Mississippi, and hosts a monthly meeting of the Jackson, Mississippi, Pipe Club. Cole says, “We are committed to having a pipe club. The experience has been all positive for us. Hosting a club fosters community and educates new pipe hobbyists about aspects of the pipe world they may not otherwise have known about, such as artisan carvers.” Cole says the club now has about 50 dues-paying members, but around 20 typically show up at a meeting. He does point out, however, that his business is focused on pipes, which is not the case with every tobacco shop. “Probably 70 percent of my revenue is pipe-related, so I have a special interest in hosting a pipe club.” Cigar-centered businesses might take a completely different view, one that Garr of UPCA points out: “The only downside I see for the shop is greater competition for limited seating, especially if the shop attracts many cigar smokers.”
It is furthermore quite possible that even if a business is centered mainly on pipes, management might not see a good fit for club meetings. George Hoffman has owned and operated Pipes by George in Raleigh, North Carolina, for 29 years. His pipe shop often takes on the atmosphere of a club, as longtime customers are fond of sitting around the big table at the back of the store, smoking and socializing. Meanwhile, the Triangle Area Pipe Smokers club meets monthly just a mile up the road from Hoffman’s store on a covered restaurant patio deck. It is an active, longstanding club populated with serious, experienced pipe smokers who host a fine annual pipe show in Raleigh. Why can’t a partnership between club and store be struck up here? “This is still a retail establishment,” Hoffman points out, “and not a very large one in terms of facilities or seating space. So for the most part it’s in my business interest to move people in and out of here—not so much to have them come and sit around for hours at a time.” Hoffman also points out that the club meets in the evening, a special problem for a shop whose owner staffs the place mostly by himself and closes at 6 p.m. “After I’ve been here for a solid eight hours, I’m not too interested in staying another three hours for a club meeting,” Hoffman says. “It’s not that the club members aren’t good guys. I just don’t have the chairs or the space or the time. It’s the same reason I don’t host cigar events.”
Toby Ducote reports that the New Orleans Pipe and Tobacco Club, of which he is president, continues to thrive with new members coming in. But he adds that finding a home base for the club has proved difficult, even in a city as big as the Big Easy. “We tried hosting at local B&Ms, and they were not too accommodating,” Ducote says. “The local Tinder Box, now known as Mayan Import Company, is a supporter of our club, but they just don’t have the ability to accommodate eight or 12 people for our meetings without interrupting their retail business. Most other tobacconists are still mainly focused on cigar sales and find pipe clubs a nuisance”—not least because “local B&Ms don’t really like it when members bring their own tobacco,” which pipe smokers eager to share among themselves are apt to do.
Yet in Flint, Michigan, Dan Spaniola, who owns and operates the venerable Paul’s Pipe Shop, a downtown Flint landmark opened by his father in 1928, brings an approach that any club president would dearly love to find in a business. Spaniola says, “We always felt there was a strong business case for pipe shops to host clubs. The Arrowhead Pipe Club has been meeting in this shop ever since 1947.” He says his father co-founded the International Association of Pipe Smokers Clubs in part to get clubs and shops together. “My father felt it would help grow both the shops and the clubs,” he says. Spaniola operates a capacious store, so seating isn’t a problem for the numbers who turn up at a typical monthly meeting (usually around 20). Moreover, Spaniola doesn’t mind the time commitment. “I normally get here around 7 in the morning and don’t leave until around 7 at night. But on club nights I might not leave until 11 or 11:30. That’s fine by me. It’s just part of my life.” That is a level of commitment that’s hard to find.
The lesson seems to be that whether any given city or any given shop can make a go of pipe club meetings is, to a certain extent, a matter of luck. The right personalities, facilities and interests have to converge in a way that generates a net positive for all concerned.
At least it might bear considering whether your shop could try hosting club meetings as a way of punching up your pipe trade. Maybe you can even take the initiative to start a club. If it doesn’t go well, you can always say, “Sorry guys, this isn’t working out.” But if by chance you can make it work, it sometimes really can work beautifully, both in the cause of kinship among pipe smokers and in the interest of the bottom line.