I bought my first pipe when I was 16, in a downtown tobacco shop in Minneapolis, the kind of store that almost does not exist any more. A kindly old fellow with gray hair combed straight back on his head helped me select a flat-bowled shape called an apple, relatively small, in a light straight-grained briar.
“It looks good with your face,” he said. He did not patronize me or treat my shopping in his store as anything but a serious and enjoyable encounter.
I do not have that pipe any more, but I have another very much like it that I have owned for about 30 years. In 1988, I took my own picture with that pipe in my mouth. I wore a button-down shirt from Land’s End, my tie was pulled half loose over an unbuttoned collar, and my arms were braced on my knees: Tough reporter on the job.
I used it at the head of more than one column over the years.
MY HIGH SCHOOL FRIEND Ray influenced that first purchase. Ray was a type: He affected a roughened Irish manner, he was a gifted actor, he drove a 57 Buick and he had a string of girlfriends. He introduced me, in addition to pipe smoking, to Buddy Holly, Dylan Thomas, and Bob Dylan.
Ray did not smoke very good tobacco, however (Holland House), and I might have left pipes behind forever if I had not met another friend, Sepp, in college, who showed me the Dunhill tobaccos. Sepp had, in fact, devised one of his own blends at the Dunhill shop in New York, denoted A16960. It was recorded by hand, in fountain pen, in a giant Domesday Book in the Rockefeller Center shop.
I bought this excellent tobacco for years, but then, after an interval, when I tried to get more of it in the 1980s, I found that Dunhill had discarded the record of their custom blends. The giant book was gone, the record of tobaccos blended for Groucho Marx, Edward G. Robinson, Raymond Chandler, and Bing Crosby. I had slipped into anachronism.
Also in my college years, by accident, I came across Connoisseur Pipe Shop, stuck in a tiny storefront in the west forties. The sole proprietor carved his own pipes, left them raw — no glazes or varnish on the briar — and offered three categories of “seconds,” meaning, pipes with some minute flaw: $10, $15, and $25.
I have been a customer of Connoisseur ever since, which you can find today, a sole island of smoke in Bloomberg Manhattan, in the basement level of a mid-town office building.
PIPE SMOKING TAKES a lot of work. You need not only a pipe and tobacco, but a good dozen pipes more, so as to give each a time to dry out after smoking. You need pipe cleaners by the bundle. You need a piece of coathanger wire, for unstoppering clogged shanks. You need a reamer, to scour out the excess carbon buildup inside the bowl. When you leave the house, you must bring two pipes, a tamper, a tobacco pouch, cleaners — and, oh yes, something to light the pipe. Frequently.
Like many another pipe smoker, I got lazy. Throughout my twenties and thirties, I smoked cigarettes. My pipes lay unused on the shelf of a closet.
Then I met Sally, who, among many other things, introduced me to tennis. After one gasping rally, I threw my cigarettes and lighter away right there on the court, and haven’t smoked one since. That was 1988.
But it’s a good thing I had good pipes, good pipe smoking discipline, and a good tobacco stashed away. I have been smoking my pipes since, without inhaling.
On my shelf today, I have 18 pipes. In them, I can read a tactile history of my adult life. There is the squatty bulldog I smoked at Fenway Park. There are the three or four pipes I bought at about the time we moved to Boston, in 1990. There is the bent apple I bought at Wilkie Sisters on Madison Avenue when I was in my twenties. There are two or three oldies from the old days of Connoisseur.
A few newer ones mark my discovery of Brookline News and Gift, and my friend Mike’s riotous collection of old and defunct brands. My pipes are darkened and colored by my fingers over 40 years, and they have been seasoned by the tobaccos I have smoked.
Lexington Avenue today is all Gap and The Limited and Victoria’s Secret. It used to be a borderline shabby boulevard of small retailers, with haberdashers and tobacconists alternating block by block up the forties and fifties.
I am still an anachronism. I can, at least in my own home, light up an after-dinner pipe. Adult company inevitably says, “That smells so good.” And “My dad used to smoke a pipe.”