Should Your Store Host a Pipe Club?

If you can handle the logistics, hosting might make business sense 

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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.

This story first appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of Tobacconist magazine.

Contributed by William C. Nelson