Cavendish and Navy Shag

One of the part-time jobs I had when I was going to college was working in a tobacconist's shop.  I worked nights and weekends and sold brier and meerschaums, hand-mixed tobaccos and the occasional box of cigars.  I don't smoke, but to this day I still enjoy going into a good tobacconists shop--that is when you can find one.

There are very few shops left that are devoted primarily to pipe smoking, which--unlike the retro chic of the hipster beard--has never come back into fashion. Only old men smoke pipes these days and, of course, the habit does have the unfortunate side effect of undoing its practitioners.

Pity.  The customers I knew while working in the shop were interesting men.  One had been a reporter in Chicago in the 30s.  He had known Al Capone and once interviewed Jesse Owens.  Another had been among the first Americans to cross the Rhine at Remagen during the Second World War.  Still another had been a diamond cutter in Amsterdam.  One long rainy afternoon he explained to me how shady the diamond business was.  As with old time barber shops, the pipe shop was a place where people--mostly old men--lingered and talked.   Very few such public spaces are left.

In the 90s, cigars became a bigger part of the business.  Prices quadrupled when they became a yuppie accessory.  Brands that I sold for a buck were suddenly selling for $12 a single.  Cigars just became a statement, a way of flaunting yourself, your power, your status.  Cigars were Arnold Schwarzenegger on the cover Cigar Aficionado flashing a horse-choking Rolex and curling a big meaty finger around a Cohiba Esplendido.  In the 90s, a lot of the old pipe shops were updated into sleek cigar lounges replete with modernist chrome, black leather chairs and flat screen TVs. 

The old shops I liked were dressed like theatrical sets. You came in and the bell on the shop door rang.  The clerk glanced up, nodded and then left you alone to look around.  And there was a lot to look at.  The shops were dark, cluttered, paneled in wood and positively 19th century and vaguely English in design.  They gave you the impression that much of the display stock had been sitting in the same place for nearly 30 years.  And everything (including the clerk) was suffused by the aroma of Burley, Cavendish and Latakia.

You tended to measure the quality of the shop by how dusty, haphazard and careworn it seemed.  Indeed, the inefficiency of how things were displayed fed into your expectation that there was something worthwhile to be found.  You might, for example, go deep into the recesses of the humidor and find a tin of Dunhill's Three-Year Old Matured Virginian that had been there since the Truman administration.  You might get the clerk to pull out hidden tray after silk-lined tray of smoking pipes in all shapes and sizes: Bulldogs, Billiards, Canadians Churchwardens, Acorns and Apples.  And if you were lucky you would find just the one you wanted.

There are still a few shops around like this:  J. Dengler's outside of St. Louis, Iwan Ries in Chicago, Uhle's in Milwaukee, a handful of others to be found here and there.  Mostly all the old shops, like all the old men who frequented them, are gone.  I recently ran across an Ezra Pound send up of Yeats' "The Lake Isle of Innisfree."  Pound replaces Yeats' fantasy cabin by the lake with the dream of owning a tobacconist's shop.

The Lake Isle

O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Give me in due time, I beseech you, a little tobacco-shop,
With the little bright boxes
piled up neatly upon the shelves
And the loose fragment cavendish
and the shag,
And the bright Virginia
loose under the bright glass cases,
And a pair of scales
not too greasy,
And the votailles dropping in for a word or two in passing,
For a flip word, and to tidy their hair a bit.

O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Lend me a little tobacco-shop,
or install me in any profession
Save this damn'd profession of writing,
where one needs one's brains all the time.

A good pipe shop does seem a dream these days.


Anti-Dada said…
Your writing gives off a satisfying aroma.

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