The Uncool Underground
Dropping in on the Ann Arbor Area Pipe Society
From the June, 2017 issue
The Ann Arbor Area Pipe Society is in session near the window at Tobacco Rose cigar shop. Mike Myers, the group's founder and owner of Walker Pipe Repair, machinist John Beeler, and retired roofer Ed Launstein are discussing tobaccos as they puff on their pipes; former schoolteacher Troy Montri is smoking a cigar.
Myers, who started the group three years ago, is giving a talk he calls "Pipes 101." While a corncob pipe might cost less than $10, he explains, collectible versions sell for much more, depending on the factory or artisan who made them. "There are pipe makers that cater to the $300 customer, and others that make highly embellished ones from exotic woods with finely made stems for $1,500 or more," he explains.
Beeler, wearing overalls and a full gray beard, says he saw a pipe go for $9,000 at auction. Launstein, also sporting a full gray beard, remembers a German lawyer at a show buying some thirty pipes, estimating that he "probably spent three, four grand easy." A mutual friend regularly brings a suitcase of carved pipes to shows in Japan, selling them for $1,000 to $1,500 each.
Pipe tobacco doesn't carry the same bold warnings that cigarettes do, but that's not because it's safe--because pipe smoking is rare and declining, it just never became a focus of stop-smoking efforts. Medical literature definitively links it to lung cancer and oral cancer. Smoking a pipe for thirty years doubles a smoker's cancer risk, and smoking for forty years triples it.
Launstein, from Pinckney, says he began smoking dried cornstalk leaves in corncob pipes on his family's farm when he was ten or twelve. He says he's been smoking for fifty years. "If it had tobacco in it, I liked it," he smiles.
Is he worried about cancer? "My wife died of cancer. It ain't that tobacco," he asserts.
Beeler chimes in, "A cigarette is basically floor sweepings with a bunch of chemicals added to it.
Pipe tobacco is basically pure."
Jim Gitschlag, a receiving clerk, says he smokes only after dinner, while Ryan Brase, a software developer, says he smokes only at the society's monthly meeting.
Myers smokes at the meeting, outdoors, or in his home workshop in the Bach neighborhood, where he makes his living cleaning and repairing pipes for customers all over the world.
Myers says his grandfather smoked a pipe, and as a kid he fell in love with the smell. After a brief flirtation with pipe smoking in college, he began smoking cigarettes. He eventually quit all tobacco a few years ago, before resuming his pipe affiliation.
He began collecting, making, and selling pipes in 2005, buying them at Treasure Mart, estate sales, and online, fixing up the good ones and then selling them on eBay. But he says he really learned the craft from Dave and Sue Wolff. He found their company, Walker Briar Works, online, and Dave began helping Myers with more complicated repairs and re-stemming while Sue handled restorations, cleaning pipes to make them look like new.
Though Myers bought the business in 2012, Dave still restores pipes and sells them on consignment. "I've honestly never seen anybody who can repair a pipe better than Mike," he says. "He worries about every detail and gets out of bed in the middle of the night to fix something if he feels it isn't just right."
Myers says usually five or six men attend the club meetings on the third Sunday afternoon each month. Below clouds of pipe smoke, members delve into the minutiae of pipes and tobacco. "I personally like a tobacco that tastes like tobacco," Myers says. "Most tobaccos have some kind of aromatic smell and some taste--blueberry note, waffles, maple syrup; some just have a hint of vanilla."
Pipe bowls may be made of clay, porcelain, olive and fruit woods, briarroot, meerschaum, and morta. Meerschaum, a white sedimentary mineral that resembles plaster of Paris, comes from Turkey, where generations of families have excavated it. Morta is partially fossilized wood from bogs and lakes. Launstein displays a pipe made of Great Lakes morta. "EPA shut down retrieving the leftover lumber resting in the Great Lakes from the logging industry," he grumbles.
"The gamut of people who smoke pipes runs from blue collar to multimillionaires," opines Beeler, a Civil War reenactor who started smoking at age fifty after carrying a pipe as a prop. He cheerfully quips that pipe smokers are "the uncool underground" suffering from "P.A.D.--Pipe Addiction Disorder." He smokes only every other day, in the car on his way home from work, but estimates he has around 100 pipes and seventy-five to 100 pounds of different tobaccos neatly organized in his Canton basement.
"You know when I started you could go to Cunningham's [drug store] or even Maison Edwards over here [in the Nickels Arcade], and you could buy a good pipe for ten or fifteen dollars, buy a premium pipe for fifty dollars," recalls Launstein. "But today that fifty-dollar pipe is five hundred."
Launstein and Beeler attend pipe shows together a couple times each year. At the big Chicagoland International Pipe & Tobacciana Show, "all the briar people are there from Europe, bringing briar for pipes to sell; there's carvers from all over the world," Launstein says. There is also a pipe-smoking contest where the winner is determined by whoever can make the tobacco in their pipe last the longest. Launstein says that one made his last over ten hours.
[Originally published in June, 2017.]
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