The Back Room

18th February, 2010: Posted by glpease in Editorial

Almost every Saturday, you’d find us there. The back room at Drucquer & Sons’ Piedmont Avenue store would be haunted by pipemen, sitting, standing, smoking, drinking from the never-empty coffee pot, sharing whatever old tobaccos had been discovered languishing, forgotten in the back of some out of the way tobacconist’s shop - “That old stuff? I’ll give you a deal if you want all six” - or rescued from the dusty shelves of antique stores or the attics of friends of friends - “My father smoked a pipe.” It was a time when pipe smokers weren’t exactly in vogue, but neither had we been disenfranchised by a society of nannies bent on destroying anything that resembles pleasure for its own sake. We gathered. We socialized. We showed and told of our recent acquisitions, and sometimes traded them. And, we smoked.

The back room of Drucquer’s was was where I first began to learn the subtleties of the pipe, and the profound pleasures it could bring. It was where I was introduced to vintage tobaccos, and the advantages a few years of age would offer those patient enough to lay some tins aside. Very few people consciously aged tobaccos then. Robert Rex, who owned the shop at the time, was likely something of a pioneer in that respect, setting some blends aside for five years, then selling them at a higher price, their labels rubber-stamped simply with the words “Aged Five Years” in block type. I don’t know if the first one he did was an accident, or if it was just another marketing angle he was chasing, or if he really knew that time was good for some tobaccos, but I suspect it was the latter. Robert knew his weeds. These aged tins didn’t always play to an enthusiastic audience. Some would shake their heads, “I’d rather have mine fresh,” or give grave counsel, “What fool is going to pay more for old tobacco?” But, the few who knew, then, would buy it, relishing the intense, fermented aromas of the leaf when the tin was first opened. And, they’d share.

The store was long and narrow, reaching from Piedmont Avenue to the parking lot in the rear, and was divided almost in two. The front was where business was done, where the pipes were displayed, and where, during weekdays, the neophyte and expert mingled democratically, guidance was offered, pipes, tobacco, cigars and accessories were sold. The back of the shop held the walk-in, packed with boxes of beautiful cigars, the tobacco bar, the coffee, and on Saturdays, the gang, a dangerous lot of scals if ever there was one. We were armed; we had pipes, and knew how to use them.

It was in that inner sanctum, the air thick with fragrant clouds, where I acquired my first Barling in a trade, an army mount billiard in the brown Fossil finish, sporting a 1949 hallmark on its exquisite silver floc. It was where I had my first bowls of so many classic tobaccos, including my first brush with the now legendary Craven Mixture, stronger than I’d been led to believe, and which sent me spinning on the dreaded E-ticket ride on the Whirl-n-Hurl, my first experience of high-octane, pipe-induced nausea. I learned, that day, to pay attention to the smoke; by not doing so, you miss a lot, but more importantly, our Lady Nicotine can be a cruel mistress if not treated with the respect due her.

I made friends there.

Mark made elaborate multi-way trades, working the room with bouquets of pipes jutting from his fists, and in the end, everyone felt they’d got the best of the deal. How he kept track of everything was a Kreskin-like feat that, to this day, leaves me in awe. Eric held court in the big red chair, cleaning and polishing his beautiful old Dunhills with loving care. He shined his stems with nothing but a paper towel - I forget which brand he preferred - and they always gleamed, black as jet. David was quick to laugh and share a story or two, contentedly puffing on his Barlings and Charatans. Ziggy would open his briefcase of pipes, and tell tales about each one, and the ones that got away. Gaston coached me with his wisdom when I’d get overly enthusiastic about some pipe trade, “Don’t be hasty. Do you really like it? Does it speak to you? There will always be another great pipe.” John would look at each pipe with equanimity. “That’s a fantastic example of what it is.” Al would only smoke Three Nuns in pipes made in the 1920s or before. “They knew how to make pipes, then. They just taste better.” The memories are palpable.

I was a kid, but was never looked down upon by the “old timers,” who were younger then than I am today. They shaped the way I look at pipes, the way I enjoy our pastime. They were, to a large extent, responsible for my first steps on a lifetime’s journey along the Pipe Road. They took me under their wings, mentored me, brought me up in the way of the pipe, and initiated me into what was to become known to me as more than just a hobby, but a culture. I owe those men a lot. If not for their caring cultivation of the enthusiastic tyro, the briar might have been just another of so many passing fancies on a long list of those.

Shops like Drucquer’s may have been, at some point in the distant past, the norm, but by the 1980s, they were already becoming a rarity, and are even more so today. It’s easy to wax nostalgic over days past, and often with good reason. Many factors - the marginalization of smoking, the cost of doing business, the declining population of pipe smokers as more and more people are to busy for time-consuming ritual, finding instead their smoking pleasures in the more casual and convenient forms of cigars and cigarettes, increased tobacco taxes and others - have conspired to destroy an old, wonderful tradition.

But, the tradition lives in spite of the pressures against it. Though many of those shops are shuttered, we have technology in our court, with the on-line communities, the forums, the chat rooms, and websites where we can share a similar, if virtual, camaraderie with our fellows. I miss Drucquer’s. I miss those days. But, I’m grateful, daily, for the pleasures of being able to share thoughts and views with other pipesters in the electronic pipe shop of the Internet.