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?