The Show

May 11, 2009

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What follows are my thoughts relative to the 2009 Chicago show.  I will preface these comments by stating that my past shows are 2000 through 2006, but I was unable to attend 2007 and 2008.  My last show for a frame of reference is 2006.

Overall, the show was a rousing success, and on all levels.  Okay, I’ll get one thing out of the way right up front.  With the economy and the activities of anti-tobacco zealots I think that many will want to know how the show was from an attendance and sales standpoint.  Well, I’ll call it as I saw it, and without being a cheerleader, or, a gloomy Gus.  So often one must read between the lines with these issues, and that just isn’t the way that I operate.  So yes, attendance was down.  Heck, how couldn’t it be?  These are tough times with lots of uncertainty, not to mention all of the hype over the flu, and we are talking about a show aimed at a luxury leisure time activity requiring travel from all over the world.  How much was it down?  Unfortunately my last point of comparison is 2006, but it was noticeably down.  That said, there were still lots of folks in attendance, and considering the times I would have to say that the show was very well attended.  And no, that’s not spinning it, or cheerleading, but all things considered I was very pleasantly surprised by the level of attendance.  It stands as a tribute to the efforts of Frank Burla and the Chicagoland club that so many folks could be drawn to the show in these tough times.  But heck, who knows, the MegaCenter is a huge hall (it would fit a 747 or two) so maybe the crowd was deceiving.  Okay, now I’m waffling so I’ll move on.

 As to sales, well, it depended on who you talked to.  The show is a very target rich environment to begin with.  When you add in the economy and lessened attendance the competition for dollars can be keen.  I didn’t see guys swooping in making multiple buys but much more deliberative shopping.  Some vendors did well, others not so much. I saw much less buying at the Pre-Show, but it was held in a section of the MegaCenter and much more spread out than usual, so it’s hard to gauge.  As to buying overall, it’s really hard to say so there isn’t much that I can say.  I know that I came to the show with just shy of seventy pieces and came home with just a few.  I’m happy, but really can’t comment too much beyond that. 

 So, that business out of the way, on to the good stuff.  I arrived at Pheasant Run Resort late Thursday morning.  In years past I have come in on Wednesday, but cutting one night of room expense was called for.  The first thing that struck me was that the resort had been nicely updated since 2006.  My next big surprise was the tent.  As you know, due to oppressive Illinois law, smoking is not allowed in the resort (other than the smoking rooms) and the MegaCenter.  To counter this, a tent was set up adjacent to the MegaCenter.  I’m told that this year’s tent was much larger than last year’s.  Picture a good sized white circus tent with walls and clear plastic windows and a very effective heating system. I’m not talking a typical tent like you see with weddings, but a huge one where you could probably have a small circus.  Inside were numerous large tables and couches and lounge chairs, and a food services area, and, the all important bar.  I was amazed.  It was wonderful.  One problem with the Pheasant Run resort had been that the social aspect had been fractured, spilt up between rooms, lounge, and common area.  The tent was a return to the Indian Lakes kind of set-up where everyone spent their time in one large area.  To me, as to this aspect, the tent was huge improvement, a return to the part of the Indian Lakes resort that was so special.  I’m sure there was still a lot going on in rooms, but the tent offered a common lounging area where pipes and cigars could be enjoyed along with the camaraderie that defines our common pursuit.

 If there is a downside to the tent it’s that during the show hours it may draw folks off the MegaCenter floor.  How much this affects sales, if at all, is really impossible to say.  But, all things considered, that is an insignificant issue considering it allows us to enjoy a show while smoking our pipes.  Sure, the A Plan would be to be able to smoke in the MegaCenter, but I find the tent to be an amazingly good compromise, and in some ways an improvement over past years.

 So, as I walked into the tent on that rainy Thursday late morning, in absolute awe of the tent above me, the first folks that I spotted was pipe making couple Bill and Terri Weist from Regina, Canada (Cats Paw Pipes).  We are old friends, and any nervousness (the good kind) due to not having done a Chicago show for two years, quickly melted away as we got caught up and chewed on bratwurst. As the sun was up over the yardarm somewhere in the world I sipped a cool Heineken that had never tasted better.  Then, their pipe case opened up and I looked at the first pipes of the show.  I was impressed.  While Bill and Terri have been making pipes for years, and very nice ones, their work looked to me like it had achieved a new level of refinement.  I think that “refinement” is the perfect word.  Part of this I suspect is due to the fact that they have been working some smaller blocks of briar resulting in smaller pipes.  Sometimes (other than intentional magnums) I associate larger pipes with more amateur efforts.  I know that isn’t nearly always the case, (and certainly does not apply to Bill and Terri’s work) but I have a strong preference for smaller pipes, so seeing smaller pipes from them was a nice surprise.  Nice work!

 As the tent filled up old acquaintances were renewed with hugs and handshakes.  When Tom Eltang entered the tent I felt an energy return that had been on the wane for a good while.  Tom and I have been friends for years.  We have worked on a major project together, the Four Seasons set (over five years time), and I find that I get great inspiration form Tom’s creativity and energy.  It’s an energy that almost amounts to a force of nature.  For me Tom has an effect like the ocean.  I need to spend time at the ocean every year to recharge my creative batteries.  When I’m away from the ocean for too long I lose that energy, and can feel it ebb away.  Tom’s  energy recharges my batteries in terms of industriousness, innovation, and to a good degree, creativity.  His unbounded enthusiasm, and dedication, has helped me look beyond the envelope and re-consider how I do things. Unlike many pipe maker’s I have never studied under Tom, but I sure as hell have been inspired by him.  And then you add his significant other, the wonderful Pia, and the Eltangs provide me with an energy that can last for years: two, to be precise.

 Later in the day my roommate and close buddy Jeff Folloder arrived.  By then fun under the tent was in full swing.  If you were on the 10th floor and heard a symphony of snoring, that was us.  By the way, my apologies to housekeeping, but the resort shouldn’t have opened Jumbalaya’s.

 I’m not going to try and name all of the fine folks who I spent time with over the four days of the show, but will spend the rest of this report discussing some pipe maker’s work that you might want to know about.  I’ll start with the new pipe maker who had the table next to mine, Joe Nelson from Fondulac, Wisconsin.  As Joe plunked down his stuff and we introduced ourselves, he identified himself as a new pipe maker.  I sort of cringed.  My immediate thought was “what if his stuff is crap?”.  It would necessitate being polite and positive and witnessing the disappointment of a new guy and tanked sales.  As he slipped each of the eight pipes that he brought out of their pouches, the smile on my face widened.  This was no beginner.  Each pipe had the solid look of a pipe maker who had been making pipes for years.  As it turns out Joe is a luthier (makes guitars) and it was quite obvious that his skills in that pursuit had translated over to pipe making.  I think he said that he had been making pipes as an amateur for upwards for five years and with an eye towards selling for a couple.  His shapes are classical to Danish, along with a signature volcano, sort of hawkbillish, that when viewed from the bottom had the strong suggestion of the shape of a stringed musical instrument.  While I was incorrect that it would be the first to sell, it was the most picked up pipe of the lot.  I knew Joe would do well with sales.  His pipes were excellently priced at $200 each, a beginning pricepoint that would put his work into more folks’ hands.  Ed sold six of his eight pipes, and if he would have stayed a bit longer on Sunday I think he might have sold another.  Ed is a great guy, in fact a gem of a guy, and is so far making all of the right moves.  Keep and eye on this one! A web page is in the works.

 I next had the pleasure of closely looking at the pipes brought by my friend Jeff Gracik (J Alan Pipes).  I recall years ago at a NASPC show seeing Jeff’s first pipes made under the tutelage of Todd Johnson.  He showed huge potential and the group of us who inspected those pipes were suitably impressed.  I don’t think that any of us could have predicted how far Jeff would come so quickly.  Even back in 2006, when I bought a little bamboo pipe, virtually out of his mouth, I had no clue how good Jeff would get.  By the way, that pipe is still one of my best smokers, and a go-to pipe.  I’ve followed Jeff’s work through his web updates, but actually seeing his work again, two years later, I was astounded.  When you close the door on a BMW, Mercedes, (or a Rolls, I suppose), there is a definite solidness, an integrity, that calls out absolute top notch construction/engineering.  I find this quality to be present in the work of some pipe makers like Eltang, Todd Johnson, and Jody Davis, just to name a few.  It’s very difficult to put this quality into words, but Jeff’s pipes have it, and in spades.  And the shapes and grain!  I know that recently there have been some discussions about the prices that some pipe makers are charging for their work, but anyone who thinks that it’s too much I invite to spend some time with Jeff’s work before making that call.  In my book Jeff Gracik sits in the front row of pipe makers and his pipes are worth every penny, and then some.

 Also in that front row of pipe makers, front and center, is my old friend Todd Johnson.  As some may know, Todd somewhat left pipe making for a bit to assist with a family business. He’s back, and back with a vengeance.  Like me, Todd carved for the show with the economy in mind, which resulted in a good number of black blasts, and a group of superb pipes. There was one little blast blowfish, one that I referred to as the “bug”, that was nothing short of amazing.  Thankfully it sold quickly as this was not a buying trip for me.  There was another pipe, a blast nosewarmer with a Bocote shank cap, a shape that wouldn’t usually do it for me, that really grabbed me.  Thankfully that one sold quickly also.  I’m thrilled that Todd is back.  Besides, with Todd laughter is usually to the level of tears as, especially as Todd “exercises” certain Chicago show traditions.  Todd’s lovely wife Rachel was also at the show with his newborn daughter Rachel, truly the prettiest thing that Todd has made.

 Adam Davidson.  What the heck can you say about the man other than “amazing”?  His creativity knows no bounds. His craftsmanship is outstanding.  Here is a pipe maker to be watched, and his work is to be acquired.  He has a huge future in the craft.

 Didn’t get to see John Crosby’s pipes.  Dang.  The man has skills.  I was very impressed with his work at CORPS.

 And then there is Rad Davis.  If you’ve never heard of Rad Davis (where have you been?) then you are missing an outstanding pipe maker who continues to offer some of the best values in the pipe world.  The group of pipes that he brought to Chicago was the best group that I have seen so far, and that’s saying a lot considering the pipes that he brought to the last CORPS show.  Rad asked me to pick my favorite four.  That was an extremely difficult task much like picking a dish on a menu where each entrée is better than the last one.  The man from Mobile continues to get better, even when you think that it couldn’t be possibly so. He continues to re-define what he does on a regular basis.  Boredom will never set in with is work. I suspect that Rad sold out a the show.

 Love and Sara Geiger of Sweden are some of the warmest and nicest people that you will ever meet.  And, as I always wish good things for good people, it is with happiness that I can report to you that his work is absolutely top notch.  It’s creative, extremely well crafted, and shows an artistic flare where you are smoking art, but not at the price of function.  The man is darn good, and better than any of his photos show. If I were you I would strongly consider his work.

 Steve Morrisette followed the Will Purdy model in entering his craft (more about Will in a moment).  He quietly and methodically learned his craft for years before even offering his first pipe for sale.  When he came onto the scene he was far further along than any new pipe maker would be.  His work is solid and extremely well crafted, if just a bit “careful” in shape.  And while elegance requires simplicity, I think that Steve is solid enough that he can “spread his wings” a bit more at this point creating more of a personal statement and identity in his shapes.  Steve seems to be a methodical guy (no surprise as he’s a musician) so for him it is “first things first”, but as a musician he’s also an artist, so I predict that we will be seeing a more signature style and shapes from him in short order.  Keep an eye on Steve, I have a feeling we have only seen the very beginning of what he will come to be known for.  Also, check out his handcut cigar mouthpieces.  They are wonderful!

 And, of course, there is Will Purdy.  Will continues to make great pipes.  He had a Garlic shape that was to die for.  I reminded Will that I have dibs on a “007” down the road. I also have to mention his lovely wife Georgia.  She’s a great lady.  A group of us had a political discussion under the tent and she showed herself to be, as always, an elegant refined lady, and a true class act.  Will is a great pipe maker and a lucky man.  He’s also more like me tending to stay out of such discussions <grin>

 Jody Davis was at the show briefly as he is on tour playing and just a few miles from the resort in concert.  Some from the show made it to the concert where I understand that Jody is not only an incredible pipe maker but also an incredible musician.  Rock on!

 It was great to see Jacky Craen of Genod pipes, always a smiling face and a true gentleman.  The pipes that he brought were extremely nice showing some shapes and grain that really wowed me, more like some that I saw a number of years back.  These pipes are really worth looking into.

 A great disappointment was the fact that by the time that I got to Wolfgang Becker’s table all but three pipes were sold.  I picked one up to ask “how much” and it turned out to be Gita’s pipe.  Dang!  From what I saw Wolfgang continues to be one of the great pipe makers.  If I do learn German it will only be so that I can speak to my friend without Gita translating, although having her as part of the conversation is always a pleasure.  Great folks.

 Brad Pohlman continues to make wonderful pipes most worthy of your consideration.  He’s been in the game a lot longer than most people know.  He’s also truly great guy with a great eye for shapes and grain.

Tom Looker’s display was excellent as always.

 Russ Oullette was great to talk to and it was fun in hearing about his creative efforts in creating his wonderful blends based on over thirty years in the tobacco business.  As he was walking out of the resort I again complimented him on his Virginia Spice (and other blends) and he reached into his pocket and threw me a bag.  Score!

 Be sure to check out Bruce Weaver’s blasts.  The man from Nashville can really make a pipe.

Peter Heeschen continues to be Peter Heeschen, and that is a very, very good thing.

 Per Billhall had amazing pipes, as always.

 From Neil Flancbaum of Smokinholsters.com we have a new leather pipe pouch with a second compartment for tobacco, etc., with a fold over flap.  Check them out as they are very reasonably priced. Nothing touches Neil’s work.

 A truly remarkable display, taking up about a square foot of my table, was Jeff Folloder’s mini pipe collection.  Over the years Jeff has asked/begged/convinced pipe makers to make tiny smokeable pipes for him in their signature shapes.  I can’t begin to describe these little gems, I think fourteen or fifteen in number.

 So, what did I acquire?  Well, this wasn’t a buying show for me.  As vendor the finances are different, and now even more different today.  I bought one pipe from my friend Aziz.  It is a little Safferling swan that I had sold him.  I told him at the time that if he ever lost interest in it I would buy it back from him.  He did, so I bought it back. Thanks Aziz!  I also bought yet another cigar mouthpiece (this makes three) crafted by pipe mker Steve Morrisette.  You’ve got to check these holders out.  Jesper had a gem of  PH Vigen, but I resisted.  I was also presented with a lovely silver cup engraved with “Ming” by one of the true show highlights, Fat Max (Doug Gull-Clemons) who wore a new kilt this year, and a great safari suit.  Doug caught me drinking single malt out of a paper cup a few years back and decided that it wouldn’t do.  Thanks Max!  Also, not to be outdone in the costume department was Max’s sig other, Doc Anne, who wore a belly dancing outfit.  Yes, she is a belly dancer, and one heck of a lady.  She’s also my “official stalker” which is always fun.  Truly great folks. I also acquired a Tom Looker Wave Eltang/Tokutomi “Wave” mousepad.  Having had a part in the whole story of the creation of the shape I had to have the pad.  Finally, I acquired some new Cumberland samples which have great potential. Outstanding cookies were also delivered and enjoyed.  We also feasted on two suitcases of Sliders!

 A nice surprise was a big bundle of Eltang bamboo.  Thanks Tom!  Man, is that stuff clean.

Now, if you have read this far and do not wish to read about how Ming faired at the show, you can exit now and I’ll never know. 

 For this show, considering the economy, and the recent ten year anniversary of Ming, I decided to create less higher end pieces and basically wholesale to my customers for this one limited occasion.  It was a gamble that paid off.  I had nearly seventy tampers in my inventory and I came home with just a handful.  By the way, if you are interested in seeing what is left I am offering them at show prices.  How about a mini-Bluto for $45 (including pouch and shipping)? 

 Sales were funny this year.  Usually I sell most everything at the pre-show and I sit there doing little on Saturday and Sunday.  This year sales were divided evenly over the three days. I did no room trading or selling outside of show hours as I really wanted to enjoy the camaraderie without concern for making sales.  That made for a great show.  Numerous established customers bought pieces, as well as a large number of new customers.  For me these shows are about promoting my work as much as sales, and my “recession pricing” went a long way towards accomplishing that goal.  The Jolly Ranchers spread all over my table, for the taking, didn’t hurt either!  Overall I consider the show a 100% success on every level.  Heck, as I had a late flight on Monday, I plunked my butt down at the after-show sale (the best place to sit to watch people walk by as they leave) and sold more tampers right out the front door of the resort.  Too bad the limo driver wasn’t a pipe smoker.

I also delivered a Fury in Abyss to Mike of Gray Fox.  Great guy!  Look for a return of the Fury.

 I’d also mention that I delivered the first aluminum Pocket Siren, a special order, the first of three.  I’m doing the happy dance over this new tamp.  

 I have left out so much. It was great to see everyone from the artisans and dealers to Carl Knighten, Jim Hendricksen, Emil, Jeff H., Bill Unger, John Tolle (with an amazing Michael Parks LOTR pipe display), Bruce Harris, and far too many names to name (see, I get myself in trouble).  My problem is that during the show I rarely leave my table as I feel strongly that I should be there.  I miss a lot, if not most of it, but that’s the way that it goes.  I guess my show report is limited in scope, but so it goes.

 We did reserve a table and room for next year, and the Good Lord willing, I’ll be there.

 My only complaint about the show was that the bratwurst could have been better.  There, I said it, dammit to hell, the bratwurst could have been better.

 Thanks again to Frank Burla and the Chicagoland club for a spectacular show.

 (photo above: Some of folloder’s stuff (and my calipers) on the room table after a day of the show during the traditional in-room drink before heading downstairs, either Calvados or single malt.)        

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