A new year is upon us and we’re welcoming 2022 with enthusiasm. Obviously, the last couple years have been a roller coaster for all, but we can’t help but reflect on this last year and all the positive changes it ushered in. Surly that momentum can’t sustain while taking for granted all that brought us here, so we thought we’d take this opportunity to tell the whole story—TobaccoPipes.com from the beginning.
The two of us (Ben and Terry) met all the way back in middle school (neither was all that impressed), but it wasn’t until we went on a camping trip in high school with some mutual friends that we really hit it off. Never could we have predicted the friendship that would ensue; co-workers at Radio Shack, attending tech school together, Ben being best man at Terry’s wedding, being godfathers to each other’s kids—and of course, building a business together.
Before the founding of TobaccoPipes.com (or TobaccoPipeStore.com as it would first be called) Ben was running a small business remanufacturing ink and toner cartridges while Terry was in IT. Between our chemistry working together and our specific skill sets, we saw an opportunity to go into the e-tail business. Yeah, “e-tail business” sounds pretty vague, but at this point, the plan was to pursue a scattering of niches. We imagined building a few sites, each with its own focus.
Frankly, we didn’t come into this venture with a passion for pipes. In fact, tobacciana wasn’t even the first field we took a shot at. We started building online stores for all kinds of things: LED faucets and showerheads, exercise equipment, hand trucks, etc. We were always trying new avenues, kicking around ideas for another e-store that would hopefully stick. We came upon tobacco pipes the same way so many do—”my grandpa smoked a pipe” Terry considered, “why not try selling pipes?”
Honestly, there were initial doubts. Something seemed attractive about the idea, but we couldn’t help thinking that maybe smoking pipes were a little too niche. There’s a reason for that cliché pipe smoker origin story of remembering one’s grandpa smoke a pipe. There was a time when they were everywhere, now adays, not so much. But something seemed right about it. As we chewed on the idea, we came to realize there was this vibrant culture of pipe smoking. While merely a fragment of the population of tobacco smokers in general, we learned that pipe smoking had a community that was robust and deeply engaged. It’s a community comprised of true characters who have a sense of romance about the pastime. Although we knew our own growing appreciation for the hobby wouldn’t inherently translate to a successful business, we had to go with our instincts, and in 2010, we launched TobaccoPipeStore.com.
As you could imagine, this early operation was a humble one. By humble, we mean a box of Dr. Grabows in a 10-ream paper box kept at Ben’s work. When an order came in, he’d fish through the container for the right pipe and ship it. We were still working our full-time jobs while trying to get one of these sites off the ground. But the tide started to turn.
Any lingering concerns over the potential of TobaccoPipeStore.com were quickly put to rest as it emerged as the dark horse among the other sites; we were finally seeing some reward for our efforts as orders for pipes started to pick up.
What’s more, this reward wasn’t simply the bit of traction that the site was garnering (although that certainly was exciting). Beyond that, we were coming to find our own growing appreciation for pipes.
We felt especially grateful—if there was one of these e-stores we especially wanted to see grow, it was TobaccoPipeStore.com. We were delighted with the folks that running the site was bringing us into contact with. Our operation was still just the two of us and we were taking customer service calls for all of these sites. But it was the pipe smokers who stood out. We found ourselves staying on the line, going beyond the initial reason for the call and having friendly chats, hearing folks’ stories. Pipe smokers are just a kind, passionate, sociable bunch. That was becoming clear by the developing relationships with patrons of the store as well as our connections with the manufacturers whose products we were carrying in our (albeit, slowly) growing inventory.
It was around this time that we began taking up pipe smoking ourselves. We felt this business might really have the potential to be something more, and if we were going to put our all into seeing this thing through, we couldn’t be outsiders to it—we needed to understand what made the fine people giving us their business so taken with the pipe in the first place. It soon became clear what made the pastime so rich and enduring.
The other fields we were choosing for these webstores weren’t exactly picked for our passion toward the products. Hand trucks sure are a swell invention, we’re glad they’re around, but we can’t say we have a significant affinity for them. As the world of pipes and tobacco started to open up, we became more and more convinced that were into something good.
We then found that we could acquire the TobaccoPipes domain for a decent price. Well, that was enough for us. If we were going to do this, we were going to commit. In 2012, two years after the launch of TobaccoPipeStore.com, we closed the other e-stores, Ben sold his business, and we moved operations into his home office where we would fully embrace TobaccoPipes.com.
Things were steadily moving along and about a year after we started working out of Ben’s home office, we were able to move into a 900 sq ft space in a small retail plaza. Things only seemed to be picking up, but we’re sorry to say, it’s around this time that we lost our way.
At the time, the overall goal of operating various web stores had not changed. TobaccoPipes.com had proven to be our most promising venture, so we put our all into the site with the expectation that it could be a stabilizing force as we added more businesses. We expanded into the neighboring unit and created a site for bird goods (seed, feeders, etc.). We then bought an existing baby product e-store and expanded again into the third abutting unit. But it just wasn’t working. The new businesses just weren’t sustainable and the stress of it all sucked a lot of the life out of things. The enjoyment just wasn’t there.
Getting any business off the ground is going to come with plenty of setbacks. The most thriving business is still bound to present some stressful days. Even with TobaccoPipes.com being the most promising of our ventures, it was no exception. The difference, however, is that with TobaccoPipes.com, there always seemed to be an undertone of joy in the work, even when it challenged us. It’s kind of like solving a puzzle—the challenging parts are also what makes it stimulating. Without them, there’s no sense of achievement. Basically, with TobaccoPipes.com, there was an innate morale through the rain and the shine. But at this point, that joy seemed to fade.
We thought the success of TobaccoPipes.com would allow us a comfortable safety net to keep experimenting with different e-tail niches. This was the second time that the site proved to be the outlier in a miscellany of pursuits. This time, we knew that we had to rethink the end goal. Any time energy was diverted from TobaccoPipes.com, we got burned. Any time we put more into it, we got more out. And after all, it was the craft and culture of pipe smoking that we now found joy in, business or not. I mean, birds are great, but when we were taking a break, marking an occasion, passing around ideas, capping off a day of hard work—well we weren’t in the parking lot throwing seed around for pigeons—we were sharing a smoke. It’s no wonder that pipe smoking has long been employed as a catalyst to thought as well as a keystone to social ritual.
Though this was a darker time, it was a necessary one. We refocused and found clarity.
We left the third unit and sold the other businesses. This time, our commitment to TobaccoPipes.com wasn’t about fomenting the growth of any business but TobaccoPipes.com. We also renewed a commitment to the culture within our walls. We’re serious about putting in hard work and always have been, but you gotta have some fun too.
Bringing the joy back to the job was crucial to all in the TobaccoPipes.com family, which to us includes everyone on this team as well as anyone who has given us their business. Customer service has always been at the center of our ethos in running this company. We’ve maintained a philosophy that the convenience of online shopping does not have to come at the cost of human connection. With that in mind, we believe that the energy cultivated within our walls shows through, even to the customer who isn’t physically in our store. We never wanted folks to hesitate to call, we wanted to foster the confidence that one could reach out to us with no doubt they would find someone on the other end ready and delighted to help, whether it be offering advice, information, remedying a problem, or whatever it might be.
Back on track, things really started to pick up again. We were receiving more and more orders and were quickly expanding our inventory. In fact, things were getting pretty cramped. On numerous occasions we found ourselves having to put up more shelving to keep all of our stock easily accessible. Sometimes UPS would come mid-day and one of us would realize we’d been boxed in at our desk.
This period of growth is also marked by another milestone—integrating pipe tobacco into our store. Our focus had been on pipes and accessories thus far, as all the red tape around selling and shipping tobacco is quite a bit to navigate for a small business already spreading a few people thin. But it felt that without this major facet of the hobby, TobaccoPipes.com just wasn’t complete. Naturally, the day tins started stocking our shelves felt like the dawn of TobaccoPipes.com as we know it.
We then turned our sights on offering cigars in the store, but of course, we needed more than shelf space for that. The idea of bringing a sizable humidor into this location that was already so cramped—well it was a non-starter.
We knew it was time to size up, but we were wary of taking another big step on an impulse. We learned that lesson before. We diligently sought a new place that was just right for us—somewhere with appropriate space to operate, but not without a little room to grow into. It was nearly two years before we found just the location.
A Big Move
This new chapter for TobaccoPipes.com felt like a true turning point. One standout moment was finally getting to attend the Chicago Pipe Show.
Although things were progressing since we totally dedicated ourselves to this business, the constant grind made it difficult to engage with the wider pipe smoking community how we really wanted to. Afterall, it was the people that really grabbed us about this field. No doubt we took pride in the hard work we were putting in, but we had long been in this liminal space—we were growing and strengthening the business but weren’t yet at the point where we could step away for a weekend to attend a pipe show while keeping the site running smoothly.
This is an industry that thrives on community, and pipe shows are an important part of that, especially for us e-tailers who relish the opportunity to engage face to face with the folks who have been supporting us all this time. We attended the Chicago Pipe Show early on when we were just getting TobaccoPipeStore.com off of the ground and wanted to get a better sense of the scene. However, it would be a few years before we made it to a comfortable place where we had the staffing and stability to attend Chicago again. Although we weren’t there as vendors, we were there as folks who felt like we had a place in this world that had been so good to us. It really felt like an indicator that we were moving in the right direction. The feeling was confirmed when, at the show, we got to talk to many pipe smokers who expressed a love for the site. We were just overcome with gratitude. And TobaccoPipes.com aside, we were now fully seasoned pipe smokers ourselves, where would a lover of the briar rather be?
The connections we’ve made along the way have been beyond fulfilling. Customers have become friends, and relationships with those in the industry have blossomed. We’re proud to carry pipes and tobacco from prominent brands such as Peterson, Rattray’s, Castello, Neerup, Savinelli, Missouri Meerschaum, Sutliff, Seattle Pipe Club, Cornell & Diehl, and G. L. Pease.
No less are we proud to carry handmade pipes from a number of amazing artisans like Ian Walker of Northern Briars, Bruno Nuttens, Owl Pipes, and J. Mouton. Of course, these folks aren’t producing pipes by the thousands every year—their process is a meticulous labor of love. That they allow us to sell some of the limited number of pipes coming out of their workshops—pipes that have taken hours upon hours of steady concentration and years of refining their craft—well it’s difficult to say what that really means, but to say we’re honored scratches the surface.
It all goes back to that lesson that was so crucial for us; putting our faith and dedication into this business would see a faith in us returned. We got that vote of confidence in a way we never could have imagined in the summer of 2021 from a good friend in the industry, Jeremy Mckenna, President of Sutliff tobacco.
Acquisition of TobaccoPipes.com- An Even Bigger Move
Most of you who have been with us know that a few months back, in July 2021, we packed up our inventory and moved our business up to Richmond, Virginia as a subsidiary of Sutliff Tobacco Company. The last few months have been quite an adjustment but beyond exciting. We’re operating with the same ethos that has gotten us here, but with the support and infrastructure to seek out opportunities and strengthen our business in ways we could have only dreamed of back in Ben’s home office.
We are collaborating and growing like never before, and we’re loving every minute of it. It’s amazing to reflect on that milestone Chicago show where we finally got to engage with the pipe smoking world like we hadn’t been able to considering all the great ways we get to now. We’re literally situated in the upstairs of the Sutliff Tobacco building—right where the legendary master blender Carl McCallister once developed some of our favorite blends that we smoke today.
And of course, the infamous Mac Baren is parent to Sutliff. With these partnerships, we’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate in exciting new ways. Their support has made it possible for us to conduct a number of amazing sweepstakes and special offers in the last few months, and it’s just the beginning.
To name a few:
- Gave away a 9-pound block of Seattle Pipe Club Plum Pudding, and later a 5-pound block of Sutliff Cringle Flake 2021, both produced right here at the Sutliff factory.
- Did a giveaway of McClelland 5100 Red Flake that Sutliff had some stock of.
- Hosted an Ultimate Sample Pack of 50 Cigars sweepstakes.
- In conjunction with master blender Per Jensen, we had the great fortune of offering our 3+ Years Aged Series—sets of Mac Baren tins that have been cellared for at least 3 years. Each set featured blends specifically recommended by Jensen for their aged qualities.
Then of course there was the 33rd Annual CORPS Richmond Pipe Show hosted right downstairs at Sutliff. To think we spent all that time not being able to get away for a show, now the longest running pipe show in the world was coming right to our building.
With all the changes for TobaccoPipes.com that preceded the Fall of 2021, coupled with the unfortunate year of cancelled pipe shows in the wake of the pandemic, the Richmond Pipe Show felt like a wonderful reintroduction.
Another big change our move made possible—our new humidor.
To the left we have the proud moment when we got our first humidor. As was said before, getting the space for this was a big motivation for us finding a new location back in Florida. It certainly was a start, but we’re beyond excited to fill this room out with all sorts of amazing cigars.
Many of you may have noticed that we’ve expanded our cigar selection a great deal in the last few months. But there is plenty of unclaimed space in this humidor—that’s no accident. We figure we have a great opportunity to hear from the folks who made this possible. So, if you have any suggestions for what you might like to see on these shelves, please tell us.
There is still much that the future has in store for TobaccoPipes.com, and we hope you’ll join us in carving it out. More than a customer, we want all to know that we welcome them in being an active member of this TobaccoPipes.com collective brain. What’s missing? What do you want to see next? What’s working and what’s not? Please reach out and help us make a good thing even better.