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Buying a Pipe in London-[article]1998

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 05, 2011 9:49 pm    Post subject: Buying a Pipe in London-[article]1998 Reply with quote

Arrow Wink Spring 1998
Volume I
Issue 4

Buying a Pipe in London
by Alan Schwartz

For many American pipesmokers, London is to pipes what a mythical and lost Havana is to cigars. But London is still here for us, and is so closely associated with both the entire history of pipes and tobacco and the American colonial heritage, that the English pipe culture, real and stereotyped, is an attractive indulgence for the pipe and tobacco enthusiast. A monument to tobacco history, London's lore, and maybe a few nice pipes and some untried tobaccos, await.

The American pipesmoker's principle attractions are the concentration of fine pipe shops in central London, and the handful of world-class pipernakers who will individually finish a pipe chosen from a pre-cut selection of "virgin" bowls, or fashion a new pipe from a briar block either to a standard or your own design. For convenience we'll use tailor's terms: "off the rack" (in Britain, "off the peg") for a ready-made pipe; "custom-made" for the personally chosen finish and cutting of the mouthpiece to your specifications; "made to measure" for a special cutting of a standard shape; and "bespoke" for an original design carried out to personal specifications.

The Dunhill flagship store, on the comer of Duke and Jermyn Streets in the heart of London's St. James's district, is the first shrine of the English pipe. Most pipesmokers will visit Dunhill first, if only to look. Here you buy pipes "off the rack." In the newly reconfigured shop, pipes and tobaccos are up on a mezzanine, along with the cigar humidor. Large leather armchairs overlooking the shop below, and coffee tables (with coffee for the asking) with magazines to browse through, make this stop an unhurried respite where you can sit and smoke a pipe or buy one, try a new tobacco or have a special blend created, or buy a few of those forbidden cigars you won't find stateside. In the Dunhill Museum downstairs is the last pipe Sir Walter Raleigh smoked before his execution.

Marc Burrows, who oversees the pipe and tobacco section, is a knowledgeable thirtyish man who is always willing to dispense excellent advice to novice and expert alike. During our visit, we watched him help an American visitor who was interested in moving from cigars to pipes. Burrows suggested the right pipe size and the appropriate tobacco, showed the customer how to fill, light, tamp, re-light, and draw properly, and then sat him down in an armchair with a coffee and told him to "practice" for awhile and to ask questions as he went along. Pleasing the customer is obviously top priority in this shop.

Dunhill prices, while steep, are more attractive this side of the pond.(see sidebar) Here, a standard "Shell" sandblast goes from E95 ($156) to E223 ($366), depending on size. Smooth-finish "Root" briars range from f:162 ($266) to E402 ($659). That's at least one-third less than they cost in the U.S., and the selection is phenomenal, especially for shapes and sizes that never get across the ocean.

A rebate of the value-added tax [VAT] of 15 to 18%, depending on the class of goods, applies to all purchases by non-residents. On the spot if you send the pipe to the U.S. If you carry the pipe and present a certificate to U.K. Customs, they stamp it and you mail the certificate back to the shop. A credit is then applied to your charge card, or rebated by check. We recommend the charge card option, as American bank service charges on overseas checks can eat up the rebate.

A few doors west along Jermyn Street (towards St. James's) is the Piccadilly Arcade, a passage from Jermyn Street to Piccadilly housing a number of top-drawer shops. One of them is Astleys, a wonderful jewel in the pipe capital's crown. The family of the current owner/manager Paul Bentley has owned Astleys since the 1930s, and before that Astleys had been a Jermyn Street fixture since 1862. A distinction of this shop is that they sell only pipes tobacco, no cigars. There's an odd pouch or rack, but the serious business here is pipes.

Paul eyes each pipe like an art appraiser. Indeed, he was one, having worked with Sotheby's, and running his own art gallery, before taking over the family business. He brings to the pipe not only a love for its natural beauty and form, but a very refined sense of proportion, and another British characteristic: a meticulous eye for finish. Astleys are mostly classic shapes that practically cry out, "England made me!" with a few top-of-the- line freehands virtually indistinguishable from old Charatans. Stamped and ready for sale, the sheer number of beautiful pipes in this tiny shop is overwhelming. There is no junk here; you could buy blindfolded with assurance. Prices range from E95 to E450 ($156 to $584).

At the corner of Jermyn Street and St. James's Street, to the left facing the Piccadilly Arcade, is another world-class smokers' emporium, Davidoff. Edward Sahakian, the courtly, elegantly mannered managing director, says that, although pipes and tobacco are only a small part of his turnover - the big items are cigars and accessories - he keeps a large stock of pipes and a premier selection of tobaccos. His pipes are Davidoff, naturally, and Dunhill, a good sampling of Peterson, Comoy, and Charatan, as well as Wilmer pipes, not well known in the States, but made in England by a very good small company devoted largely to private-label pipe manufacturing. Douglas Elliott, Davidoff's pipe specialist, tells us, "The pipe smoker needs education, and I try to give it to them, if they've got the patience."

On St. James's, facing Davidoff's entrance, a walk to the right of a short block (south, away from Piccadilly) takes the pipe pilgrim to James J. Fox and Robert Lewis, established 1787, and on St. James's Street since 1830. This shop has the time-worn quality of a fine old shoe. There's a selection of mid-range Petersons and Comoys, and a good selection of tobacco, of which their house brand is highly recommended.

Fox/Lewis has special meaning for cigar smokers, because it was here that the great Winston Churchill bought most of his cigars. The shop's most famous customer from 1900 to 1964, Churchill was introduced by his mother (you had to be recommended in order to have an account) on 9 August 1890.

It's all in the shop ledgers, which manager Tim Cox or director Robert Emery will show if asked (just say that Alan Schwartz at PipeSMOKE sent you), along with accounts for Oscar Wilde, who ordered his exclusive gold-tipped cigarettes here, and left this world with all unsettled bill! There's also the Duke of Windsor's humidor and cigars handmade in Havana by Luis Marx, the only box in existence by the inventor of shade grown wrapper; and lots of other interesting tobacco related, history-kissed items.

The Fox/Lewis pipe selection is really for the cigar patron who wants a decent pipe for a change of pace, not a collectible. But the shop and its memorabilia - and certainly the immense cigar selection - make this store a must visit.

For some spectacular briars, exit the Fox/Lewis history center and turn right, up the hill towards Piccadilly. Cross Piccadilly, go right one street, then turn left onto Old Bond Street. At #13, you'll find the original Benson & Hedges, where there's a fine selection of top briars, including James Upshall, Ashton, Peterson, Cornoy, as well as an interesting choice of B&H brand tobaccos.

Particularly good here is the selection of James Upshall, especially some of the newer iterations: large, straight-grained beauties in the E150 ($245) range, as well as some very well-sand-blasted tan "shells." (To end a pernicious myth started recently by some pipe "weenies" with nothing better to do: Upshalls are still made in the same place, Tilshead, by the same people, Barry Jones and his assistants. Only the ownership of the company has changed. In fact, with more financial clout than before, the briar is of better quality, and this critic thinks that the new Upshalls are truly great.)

For a further look at large displays of pipes of many brands, the next stop is Selfridges, or Harrods, or both. Selfridges is closest. Continue north (left, facing B&H) on Old Bond Street - which changes to New Bond Street a bit further along - to Oxford Street, cross over, and turn left to Selfridges, a major department store that is on a par with Macy's.
For Harrods, the world-class department store, backtrack south (right, facing B&H) along Old Bond Street to Piccadilly, turn right to the Green Park Underground (not "subway," as Brits think that's a below-street-level pedestrian crossing - ask for the "tube" station if necessary), and take the train two stops to Knightsbridge. Harrods is one block past the station. Or cross Piccadilly and take a cab or bus in front of the Ritz Hotel to Harrods. (At Bond Street, Piccadilly goes one way, in the "wrong" direction).

Both Harrods and Selfridges have similar selections, as they are both Fox-managed concessions, but with a difference. Harrods draws an international clientele, and has a bit more of the up-market, high-end pipe stock. Selfridges has more home market trade, with the appropriate differences in merchandise and price range. Both have excellent selections of all the major brands. You can't go wrong at either.

Three other excellent smokeshops in London are Shervingtons, on High Holborn, and G. Smith and Sons, on Charing Cross Road - ah, those wonderful names so redolent of Holmes and Watson riding in a Hansom when "the game is afoot." G. Smith has a particularly good selection of Ashtons and Upshalls. Shervington is good for Peterson, Comoy, and GBD. In the "City," London's "Wall Street," try Walter Thurgood, at London Wall (the real one!). When the game afoot is a pipe, leave no door unopened.


For this writer, a truly fun activity is to go directly to the craftsman who makes pipes and ask him to do up a special order. This presupposes that you really can't find what you want "off the rack," because having a pipe made is especially time-intensive.

In the St. James's district, one of the all-time fine pipernakers is Dennis Marshall, who was a master carver for Charatan in the old days, before starting his own line, Miliville, along with his son, John. Millvilles are ringers for the old Charatans, and the Marshalls do first-rate work at a small workshop in Hertfordshire, but sell from a stall in the St. James's churchyard on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. To get there from Dunhill, walk right (facing Dunhill) along Jermyn Street less than a block, to the entrance to St. James's Church. Enter the church vestibule and continue on through to the other entrance in a courtyard facing Piccadilly, where you'll find one of the Marshalls in the stall. There is a lot to choose from ready-made, but if you tell them you want this pipe with that finish and such and such a mouthpiece or band, or whatever, they'll make it and send it, or with cajoling, have it for you the following week. Ordinary pipes start at 10 to about 50 pounds ($16 to $82) in standard shapes (one of London's real bargains), and freehands continue from there on up into the hundreds. But these guys are good, and will work with you to get what you want.

Bill Taylor of Ashton, Moty Ezrati and Barry Jones of Upshall, Les Wood of Ferndown, and Colin Fromm and Colin Leeson of Invicta will also custom fit or custom-make pipes for those who will journey to see them. A great experience, to say the least.

Ashton needs no introduction, as it is one of the best pipes in the world, and Bill Taylor, who worked his way up through the Dunhill ranks until he went out on his own in the early'80s, makes pipes that are sought after by connoisseurs. Despite all his success, Bill is easy going, loves a joke and a pint, and will take the time to pick you up at the train station in Romford, Essex, a 35-minute ride east from central London. Driving is not recommended, as the London traffic makes this relatively short jaunt a 2-3 hour car ride. (London traffic is worse than NY, LA, Chicago, or Boston at their worst!)

The best plan with Bill is to hop a morning train, and first look through his bins of ready cut bowls. If you can find one you like, he or one of his assistants will stain and finish the bowl and cut a mouthpiece on the spot, while you watch. You specify the color, test the mouthpiece with your teeth for finer tuning, and can even say no if you don't like the outcome. Don't worry, it'll become someone else's favorite Ashton.

If you want something special, a "bespoke" pipe made exclusively for you, it's best to arrive with a model in mind, or a pipe you want copied, or a drawing of what you want. Bill will select the briar block(s) with you and will send the finished pipe in a few weeks. He's done the same for yours truly many times, and always gets it right. Costs run from 68 to 70 pounds ($112 - $279), depending on the size of the briar block. Silver fittings can add 5 to 50 pounds ($25 - $82), plus the time to send them to the silversmith. I usually get two in the same shape - one smooth, one sandblasted - as I always carry (at least) a brace of pipes, and like the idea of the different finishes for day and evening, indoor or out, or just plain alternation.

Moty Ezrati at Upshall will do the same thing, except he is not a pipemaker - Barry Jones does that. Upshall is located in the opposite direction (west) in a village called Tilshead, not far from Salisbury and almost within view of Stonehenge. Call Moty for an appointment and you either drive (it's more direct and less strenuous in this direction, with beautiful Countryside around Tilshead, as well as Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral to enjoy) or you take an hour train ride to Salisbury and they'll pick you up.

A grade "P" Upshall straight grain will cost from 150 to 250 pounds ($246 - $410), depending on size, if it's bespoke; up to one-third less if you find a bowl Barry Jones has already cut so he just has to finish and fit. Grades B, G, and E can cost more, up to 1500 pounds ($2460). Pricey, yes, but these are some of the best briars in the world and, just as with a bespoke suit made for you on Savile Row, you pay for the individual and exclusive tailoring. It's one of a kind in every respect.

!! Πάντα όρθιοι και γεμάτα μπόλ !!
I don't want any of your statistics; I took your whole batch and lit my pipe with it. Mark Twain.
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