Pipe Dreams

Pipe smokers like to claim they live longer than nonsmokers. More than four decades after the fact, they’ll still cite a 1964 Surgeon General’s report on smoking, which stated: “Death rates for pipe smokers are little if at all higher than for non-smokers …”

That report and others that followed warned of negative health effects for practitioners, including oral and lung cancers, but there’s a state of mind—a “calm and objective judgment in all human affairs,” according to pipe smoker Albert Einstein—that enthusiasts claim the habit enhances.

“Pipe smokers are just more relaxed people,” said Rich Lewis, the owner of Lewis Pipe and Tobacco. “Especially compared to cigarette smokers.” Despite lean times, Lewis himself, a fifty-four-year-old pipe maker and tobacconist, definitely fits that description. Adorning the walls of his tiny shop, located on the street level of the historic Rand Tower in downtown Minneapolis, is an assortment of antique pipes. Tiny nude figures and stags’ heads are carved atop pearly meerschaum bowls amidst stranger contraptions made of metal and briar—the hard, ball-shaped Mediterranean burl from which most pipes are made. Cases hold the cigars, pipes, and tobacco that make up most of Lewis’ sales stock, along with some imported and domestic cigarettes.

The current seventy-percent wholesale tax on non-cigarette tobacco products has hurt business, as have the smoking bans that eliminated many cigar customers’ and downtown corporate accounts. Since laying off a longtime employee this past spring, Lewis has been running a one-man operation. Yet he seems to take all the glum news in stride, just as he did the chaos of relocating from Nicollet Mall last summer. This despite the fact that for five months, while his workshop was in shambles and he waited out construction next door, Lewis was unable to make a single pipe—his true love and talent.

Lewis hopes the new workshop, visible from the Rand Tower lobby, will interest passersby in his arcane craft. He also agreed that the Rand is a good fit for his business. The building’s Art Deco design evokes an era when tobacco was as ubiquitous as the fedora, another anachronism in the twenty-first century. Calling his business “kind of a dinosaur in that sense,” Lewis said he’d hate to go the way of the haberdasher.

Lewis has run the shop since 1972, when his father passed away. (His mother worked with him until 2001.) Nearly thirty-five years later, he is the authorized U.S. repairman for many of the world’s top pipe makers, and some believe he deserves a place among their ranks.

“When I tell you that Rich Lewis is the best pipe maker in the world, I am not blowing smoke,” quipped Tony Soderman, president of the locally based Great Northern Pipe Club and a pipe collector for forty-two years. “I have heard two of the world’s foremost pipe makers say the same thing,” Soderman added. One of them, Giancarlo Guidi, tutored the previously self-taught Lewis in 1986 and 1989 at Guidi’s Ser Jacopo factory in Pesaro, Italy (just above the calf on the Adriatic coast).

These days, the number of master pipe makers is dwindling, Lewis said. After World War II, European factories brought in train cars full of briar to craft hundreds of thousands of pipes. Now, those companies are gone or have whittled their ranks of craftsmen to a handful. Even the gathering of briar, which is done by hand, is a dying art relegated to the older generations.

Lewis says he’s not in danger of going out of business but admits it’s a struggle to be the only employee. In addition to tending the store six days a week, he fronts the Rich Lewis Band at night, playing covers and Lewis originals—New Orleans-style R&B and boozy, bluesy rock ’n’ roll—as an acoustic trio at Erte Restaurant in Northeast Minneapolis or with a full band and horns at Neumann’s in North St. Paul.

What keeps Lewis Tobacco going is a core of regular customers, both in-store and online, who buy cigars, pipes, tobacco, and related accessories. Les Pettit has been a Lewis patron for twenty years. “It’s the only place I can find this particular brand of weed,” he said. Pettit smokes Upshall “estate” (a fancy name for used) pipes, which Lewis buys and sells. The shop owner even makes custom mouthpieces to fit Pettit’s teeth. “I chew a pipe a lot,” Pettit said as he stepped behind the counter to weigh out his tobacco.

Neither man smokes cigarettes, an experience they differentiate from the fine feel of a burning briar bowl. Both spoke calmly, if not quite objectively, about the smoking ban and the tabooing of tobacco. Pettit referred to pipe smoking as a dying art, and Lewis admitted doubt about future demand.

“Will the boomers pick it up as they get a little bit older?” Lewis wondered. “I don’t know.” Despite that professed uncertainty, the question didn’t seem to raise his blood pressure much.