young Abraham Lincoln told a friend of his intention to become a lawyer. His friend said that the country already had too many lawyers, to which Lincoln responded, "Yes, but there's always room at the top."
There is no shortage of American pipemakers: many are good, some are excellent, but few have reached the plateau, so to speak, of the American pipe carving elite.
Rich Lewis, a Minneapolis, Minnesota tobacconist and regional rock 'n' roll icon - and recording star - is one of those top pipemakers.
An Unforeseen Calling
Rich's career was born of tragedy. John Lewis, Rich's father, purchased a twenty-year old Minneapolis smoke shop in 1969. Lewis Pipe and Tobacco largely sold machine-made cigars and low-end pipes. When John, husband and father of six, died prematurely in 1972, Rich and his two brothers stepped into the breach, carrying on the family's tobacco business.
By 1973, Rich's brothers left the business to pursue separate careers. The family matriarch, Mary Lewis, joined the business in 1975 and was especially helpful in handling the store's bookkeeping and administrative affairs, until her retirement in 1999, at age 82.
In the 1970s, Lewis Pipe and Tobacco differentiated itself from local competitors by offering pipe repairs. Repairs were generally completed in 48 hours; today the turnaround time is on the far side of 48 days, due to a consistently heavy demand. Rich says that this early pipe repair work was on-the-job training for his future pipemaking efforts.
Lewis made his first pipe, totally by hand, in 1975; it was subsequently stolen from the store after a local newspaper profiled his work. He freely admits that his early pipes were roughly made. He had no equipment, and little sense of the means employed by premium pipemakers. But he did possess an intellectual curiosity for pipes and pipemaking, and a willingness to accept well-intended criticism of his work. Some close friends in the industry "brutalized my pipes," says Lewis. "They criticized my shapes, finishing, stem making, balance, drilling, and more, but nonetheless encouraged me to keep on."
In a further effort to assist Lewis, these friends accompanied him to Europe where he was introduced to some of the preeminent Italian and English pipemakers. Surprisingly, he found these pipemakers to be quite open and willing to help him; they didn't perceive him to be a competitive threat to be kept at arms-length. Touring Europe, Lewis saw how hand-cut stems were properly made, with calipers near at hand, and how precision lathe-work could enable a pipemaker to produce classical pipe shapes - especially the ever-difficult billiard. Lewis's prehensile mind absorbed what he saw and heard in Europe, and he returned to Minneapolis with the desire to establish his own identity as a pipemaker.
At the same time, Lewis focused on broadening the appeal of his retail smoke shop by stocking premium pipe brands and hand-rolled cigars. He attended the first RTDA trade show to be held outside of New York City, the Chicago show in 1984. "Exhibitors at the Chicago show largely ignored me, even though I had been in the business since 1972," notes Lewis. But it was there that he made a few lasting friendships and connections in the industry.
Over the years he has added such premium pipe brands as Dunhill, Ser Jacopo, Castello, Radice, and many more. He maintains his flourishing pipe repair business and has become proficient to the point where he is now the factory-authorized repairman for several top brands: Ser Jacopo, Ashton, Becker, Radice, and Il Ceppo. He specializes in custom work including staining, splicing, logo stamping using factory-supplied stamps, and briar inlays.
Lewis is also reconsidering the wholesale pricing structure of the pipe repairs performed for other retailers. Often, retailers keystone the repair prices he charges them, so that they, in turn, make money on repairs. At present, he sees that his wholesale prices are unsustainable; the amount of time and effort he puts into premium repairs result in little or no profit for himself. Retailers are advised to contact him regarding changes in pricing.
In 1987, Rich relocated Lewis Pipe and Tobacco to its present location in downtown Minneapolis, across from Neiman Marcus Department Store. He hired Kevin Hahn, an experienced tobacconist from another company, in 1990, to manage his 500-square-foot store. "Kevin is very knowledgeable about pipes, cigars, and tobacco," says Rich, "and I depend on him to run the store for me while I concentrate on pipemaking and repairs."
Rich says that he has fashioned his store as a European smokeshop - without walk-in humidor. His shelves are modular, in that they can hold either pipes or boxes of the Dunhill, Ashton, Padron, Davidoff, or Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars - among many others - currently sold. Although the store faces the street, customers enter from a common mall area. He cites two advantages: first, the mall has a security guard posted near his entrance during business hours, and second, the frigid winter temperatures, for which Minnesota is known, are kept at bay, each time a customer enters the store.
The Lewis Pipe
The nexus of Rich's pipe making operation is in the 800-square-foot basement below the store. There he works amidst his lathe, sander, buffing wheels, and other necessary implements. This is where Lewis Handmade Pipes are created from start to finish.
Lewis Pipes are offered in two types of finishes, smooth and carved. There are six series of smooth finishes: Natural, (unfinished, with a few blemishes, $125); Artist (mostly smooth, with a carved pattern, $225); Original (beautiful grain, with minor sand pits, $275); Supreme (exceptional grain, $395); Majestic (superb grain, very few made, $500 and up); Crown (perfect grain, extremely rare, priced per piece).
There are two series of carved finishes: Woodsman and Armadillo. The Woodsman is totally carved briar and sells for $175. The Armadillo is a uniquely carved, layered pipe, that sells for $275. Rich is justifiably proud of the Armadillo style. "I wanted to make my own statement in pipe carving, and the Armadillo is it."
At a recent pipe show in the Midwest, I observed countless pipesmokers rave about the Armadillo. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Rich says that it won't be long before some pipemakers "borrow" his Armadillo design.
Italian briar is used in all Lewis Pipes. Rich admires this briar for its grain, taste, ability to take a stain, and overall beauty. The Lucite stems are all hand-cut - no pre-fabricated stems used here - and carry the discreet Lewis logo.
Production of Lewis Pipes is limited: between 50 and 200 are carved annually, although Rich says he hopes to exceed 200 units this year. He has the goal of someday setting up his own pipe factory for the production of premium, handmade pipes, though he has no plans of abandoning his retail smokeshop business.
The Future of Retailing
I asked Rich whether he is bullish on the future of tobacco retailing. After a long pause, he shook his head and replied, "I don't know." He is not a pessimist by nature, but there are a number of issues with which he is concerned.
Naturally, as a small, independent tobacconist, he dislikes the presence of the deep discounters - mail order firms. "Discounting cigars and pipes is so easy," he says. Price becomes such an enticement to customers that brands are diluted, and loyalty to the local smokeshop is increasingly challenged.
Lewis also sees the Internet playing a larger role in the industry. "What's to prevent the pipe and cigar factories from establishing a web site and selling directly to the consumer, bypassing traditional importers, distributors, and [ultimately] retailers?" he asks. He also notes that there is a proliferation of gray-marketers, who often set up shop in their homes, selling tobacco-related products at prices by which smoke shops can't hope to compete.
Every smoke shop in the country is concerned about taxes, and rightly so. But Rich says he was particularly angry when one premium cigar manufacturer/distributor, with whom he had an account, began collecting Minnesota's 35% wholesale cigar tax. When he made direct inquiries to the distributor and the state, he discovered that this company was paying his state 35% of their cost, and pocketing the difference. After he and other retailers protested vociferously, the company quickly rescinded its tax-collection policy.
Groucho Marx was once asked by a fellow comedian to write a blurb for his upcoming book. Groucho wrote, "From the moment I picked up this book, I laughed and laughed. Someday I intend to read it!" In all seriousness, from the moment I saw (and purchased) my Lewis Armadillo I was in awe of its artistic execution. I intend to smoke it for many years to come. After a quarter century of pipemaking, Rich Lewis has joined a handful - a very small handful - of preeminent American pipe carvers. Bravo!
Lewis Pipe and Tobacco, 512 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55402, Tel: (612) 332-9129, Fax: (612) 305-1877, email: www.lewispipe.com.
SMOKESHOP - June 2000