222. A Life With Pipes: The Doug Owen Story

222. A Life With Pipes: The Doug Owen Story

Doug Owen is a long-time reader of Peterson Pipe Notes and with every comment he makes he rekindles in me the desire for the days when every town of any size had at least one good pipe shop. He’s spent a lifetime behind the counter and has the kind of knowledge and enthusiasm for Petes and other marques that marks someone a true pipeman. I asked him to share his story in hopes that you will find it as fascinating as I have.I first began smoking a pipe, like many guys, early in my college career. I was attending Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon and like many 18 year old’s at the time I figured part of the collegiate image was to be a pipe smoker. Sadly, my first attempt at pipe smoking was an abject failure. I went into a well-known tobacco shop in downtown Portland to pursue the briar symbol of my new image, but not getting much help or badly needed advice from the man behind the counter I proceeded to pick out the biggest black sandblasted billiard in the shop. I believe it was called a “Maro Jumbo,” 7 inches long and a bowl that was easily more than 2 inches tall. I shelled out the grand sum of about 10 bucks, and I believe the pipe was made by GBD.

Bad Memories: The Maro Jumbo

To compound the rookie mistake I thought that yellow and red tin of Murray’s Erinmore ready rubbed would do nicely. Went home, sat on the deck of my parents house and proceeded to freight train a large bowl of that stuff until my tongue was fire engine red. Needless to say, I retreated, like many my age, to my trusty pack of Marlboro reds and left the Maro Jumbo in a drawer for several years.

My first job behind a tobacco shop counter was at Arthur Leonard’s in Portland, Oregon. I was hired to help during the Christmas rush in 1972. It was a disaster. I had no retail experience and no knowledge of the business except that I smoked Borkum Riff in a cob pipe.  I only lasted two weeks before everybody, including me, realized it wasn’t going to work.

Arthur Leonard’s (c. 1950s): one of the Northwest’s most famous brick & mortar shops

My real introduction to to my long love affair with pipes and tobacco came in 1974, while I was working on a Master’s Degree in U.S. History and needed to work part time to help pay the rent. My wife Risa and I were living in an apartment in Tigard Oregon just outside of Portland and a major regional shopping mall was just being finished just a couple of miles away, so I started applying for work at the various stores in the mall but one caught my attention right away: The Tinderbox. The crossed clay churchwardens sign grabbed me like a magnet.

When I walked in, the young owner John was behind the counter, and I asked him if he was hiring. Of course the first thing out of his mouth was, “Do you smoke a pipe?” I thought, ‘Well if I tell him the Maro Jumbo story or the cob and Borkum story that might not help my chances,’ so I just said, “Of course.”

Detail from the cover of the famous 1979 Tinder Box catalog

He started me waiting on customers the following Saturday and Sunday, and I knew fairly quickly that no matter what else I would work at in my life, this was my calling. I never finished my Master’s degree. I went on to manage the store for John and his wonderful wife Susan, and eventually I owned a piece of the Franchise as his partner.

It wasn’t long before I acquired a fairly serious case of Pipe Acquisition Disorder. I bought a Peterson Donegal Rocky pot, shape 606. It was $18.95 retail and with a silver band, was quite nice.

Peterson offerings, 1979 Tinderbox catalog

Our Tinderbox in Portland was selling about 15 -20 Petersons a week back then. Multiply that by the hundreds of shops that were selling Peterson pipes worldwide and you can see that interest in pipe smoking in those days was truly massive. The 70s were truly the heyday of pipe smoking interest, a very exciting time to be involved in the game and Peterson was right in the middle of that tidal wave.

I explored the wonderful world of all kinds of briars, but Peterson was always one of my favorites. Frankly, in the 1970’s they were a bit under the radar compared to Dunhill, Charatan, Comoy’s, GBD, Castello, Savinelli, BBB and the Danish freehand craze, which had just begun and was taking the industry by storm.

Peterson offerings, 1980 Tinderbox catalog

But I always touted the advantage of the Peterson System pipes to my customers, and of course had several in my personal rack. However, my most treasured Peterson (which I still have to this day) I purchased used from a fellow Tinderbox employee, Dean. It’s a large Peterson Deluxe Billiard with a cross grained bowl which is so hard you can feel the grain ripple if you run your thumb across it. I recall that was about 1976.

Doug’s De Luxe 106

Like all the employees at our store, I had the fringe benefit of being allowed to test smoke pretty much all the cigars and tobaccos in the store at no charge. Of  course we all took full advantage of that perk and I soon fell in love with latakia mixtures. My favorites were the usual suspects at the time: Balkan Sobranie, Dunhill 965, London Mixture, Nightcap, McConnell’s Oriental, and of course several of the Tinderbox house blends such as Connoisseur, Philosopher, Balkan, and Epicurean, all of which were actually blended at TB’s tobacco works in Southern California. In the 1970s and early 80s the pipe smoking craze was storming down the tracks so rapidly that it was easy for franchisers to afford to blend their own tobaccos and sell them to the franchisees at a very reasonable price. Whereas tinned blends like Sobranje and Dunhill were retailing for the outrageous price of about $2 per 2 ounce tin (in those days most all the European tins were a full 2 ounces, not 50 gram which came along later), Tinderbox English blends were retailing for around 60 cents per ounce.

So I was a big fan of mixtures, but one day the man I had bought the Peterson Deluxe from asked me why I was fouling my pipe bowls with smoky latakia when I could be enjoying the sublime pleasures of natural virginia flakes. Dunhill Light Flake was the one he used and was considered the finest virginia flake on the market, bar none. Well as you might guess, I had to try this stuff. First try was dismal. I was used to puffing like a freight train like on my latakia mixtures without getting them overly hot, so when I approached virginia flakes with the same cadence, hot tongue city!  Dean then taught me how to “sip” virginias to nurse the maximum flavor out of them.* So after following his advice I added virginia flakes to my stable of favorites.

In 1976 Dunhill was still blending their tobaccos at the Dunhill facility. In 1977 they farmed out the production to Murray’s factory in Ireland, and unfortunately Murray attempted to maintain the same flavor profile in the Dunhill Light Flake, but without success. The new blend was clearly flavored with some sort of light topping which masked the beautiful natural flavor of the virginia leaf. Although I still recommend Dunhill Flake to my customers, a few which are actually closer to the original Dunhill Light Flake are Capstan Blue, Samuel Gawith FVF, Fribourg and Treyer Special Brown Flake, G.L. Pease Union Square and especially Cornell and Diehl’s Opening Night, a beautifully natural tasting flake when sipped slowly.

Peterson offerings, 1981 Tinderbox catalog

I still smoke latakia mixtures frequently  in my larger briars, usually one of my Dunhill LB’s or ODA’s ( I consider the LBs to be possibly the most perfect large pipe design ever), or often in a large Astley bulldog which I purchased at the Astley store on Jermyn street in 1985. Of course I still fire up my beloved Dunhill 965 (now of course Peterson) in one of those large bowls. Two of my favorite pipes for that purpose are a large Peterson Silver Spigot Billiard Sandblast which I purchased at their Dublin shop in 1985 and of the Peterson Billiard I bought from Dean in the 1970s.

I should mention the pipes I prefer for my flakes, which brings me to the Sasieni line, which I believe is possibly the most underrated pipe sold on places such as eBay. I have a collection of thirteen Sasienis and I won’t bore you with the background of the brand’s evolution. Suffice to say, there is a wonderful article on Pipedia detailing the exit from Dunhill by Mr. Sasieni in the 1920s and the subsequent drama that took place.  Smaller Sasieni 4, 8 and the rare 1 dot are wonderful flake pipes, almost always delivering a full flake flavor when sipped properly.

Associated Imports Pipe Shop Directories, c. 1978

I fell in love with both the Peterson pipe and the Sasieni pipe when they were represented by Associated Imports. On the west coast they had no regular sales staff but used independent wholesale representatives who would travel up and down the coast between L.A. and Seattle. Our rep was a wonderful gentleman by the name of Norb Orens, and he struck up a very positive and mutually lucrative relationship with our Tinderbox as we had a reputation for selling a ton of Petersons out of our store.  When he introduced the Sasieni line to our store, we decided, because of the connection Sasieni had with Dunhill before that falling out, that we could sell the Sasieni 4 dot as basically the same quality pipe as the Dunhill line for about half the price. 4 Dots were selling in those days for about 35 dollars as opposed to the Dunhill pipe (which we also stocked)  at about 70 dollars.**

This all worked quite well until about 1984, when for some reason I still do not understand, the pipe market collapsed completely and my business partner John started looking for a new way to make a buck and eventually started a very successful chain of “take and bake” pizza shops. I moved on to law school, graduating in 1989 and landing a position in a large Seattle firm where I practiced for a short time. But I dearly missed my small retail experience and more specifically the pipe and tobacco shop part of it.

In 1991, a small nautical store in Poulsbo, about 20 miles west of Seattle came up for sale and I jumped at the chance to return to my roots. After about 15 years running the Cargohold with much encouragement from a friend of mine who was retiring from his retail tobacco shop a few miles south of here, I decided to jump back into the retail tobacco business and quickly discovered that there are a lot more pipe smokers and wannabe pipe smokers out there than I had imagined. The tobacco shop end of the store accounts for about 40 percent of the sales, exponentially more than I had ever imagined would be the case. The vast majority of my new pipe smoking clientele are guys under the age of 35, but there’s also a few gals.

 As far as my favorite shapes in pipes, my tastes run pretty much to the basic billiards, bulldogs, and straight apples. I enjoy the beauty of a well-turned sandblast, so that it did my heart good to see that since the Laudisi buyout, Peterson is now doing their sandblasting in house again! I have never been a big fan of straight grain pipes, which I suppose has saved me considerable money, as I prefer to look at a nicely uniform and symmetrical cross grain with beautiful birds eye on the sides of the bowl.

Doug at his favorite place

These days, at the age of 73, I allow myself one pipe a day after dinner with a couple of fingers of single malt scotch and usually a good book or a movie from my collection of DVDs. I spend a lot of time at my store, which is more like play than work to me. My wife tells me my eyes light up when a new pipe customer comes in the door, and subconsciously I am probably thinking back to that day in 1974 when I walked into that Tinderbox and into the wonderful universe of pipe smoking.

 

*A Brief Tutorial on Sipping

As far as the “sipping” of virginias, the secret to maximizing flavor is actually twofold. First, one should never smoke them too wet or too dry. Right out of the tin they are almost always going to benefit from a little drying time after one rubs out the flake. Too dry however obviously is also a negative so I try for just a slight bit of dampness to the touch. This of course, depends on the particular tobacco involved. My experience is Gawith tobaccos need a lot of drying time whereas something like Capstan or Orlik Golden Slices less so.

The “sipping” simply refers to the speed and depth of the puffing. With a good latakia mixture like 965 or Maltese Falcon one can get away with fairly fast puffing and more importantly long puffs into the back of the pallet. With virginias the puffing needs to be shallower, if you will, and not as vociferous or fast as with the mixtures. It is kind of like taking a small sip of fine whisky as opposed to a large gulp of lager beer. I hope that description is not too opaque. Smoking virginias requires more attention to those little nuances. That does not mean virginias are superior, just different tobacco requiring different approaches by the piper.

 

**I still treasure a Sasieni four dot Appleby that was gifted to me back in the 1970’s but the Sasieni sales rep for our territory in Portland Oregon where I worked at the Tinderbox store. We had gained a reputation for selling a truckload of Sasieni pipes, at the time we marketed them as a pipe that was comparable to the Dunhill for about half the price. As you all know, Mr. Sasieni left Dunhill in the 1920s purportedly taking with him Dunhill’s oil curing method, which he used on his product. The only area where Dunhill was superior to Sasieni was that the Dunhill mouthpieces were always hand cut, a characteristic that Sasieni pipes did not feature. The legend goes that after Sasieni left Dunhill and started creating his line he marked his mouthpieces with one blue spot. Well, you can guess Alfred Dunhill was not happy with that, so he had his attorneys send  a “ nastygram” to Sasieni threatening a lawsuit for trademark infringement. So Sasieni proceeded to do away with  the one spot and replaced it with four blue dots, signaling to Alfred that Sasieni pipes were four times superior to Dunhills—a big F*** you! I managed to buy one of those Sasieni 1 spot pipes from the 1920’s.  That Appleby four dot, by the way, is still in my cabinet after 45 years of companionship. I have to take special care with the button as I have buffed it so many time it is wearing thin. It is definitely my most treasured pipe “companion,” having smoke it once a week for 45 years—my god, I believe that’s about 2340 pipefuls—a lot of Capstan!)

The Cargohold is located at 18864 Front St NE Poulsbo, WA 98370. They’re open seven days a week and specialize in cigars, pipes, pipe tobacco, nautical & aeronautical history, maritime/nautical history, brass lamps, clocks/barometers, weather instruments, British & American history, American politics, Great Depression, single malt Scotch, small business retail, Perry Mason, Nero Wolfe, Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, briar/calabash pipes, English Spring Spaniels and golf. You can get it touch at 360 697 1424.

 

The annual “Sweet Petes” post is coming soon!
If you’ve got an unusual, extraordinary, fascinating, obscure or down-right gorgeous Pete to share,
send me a photograph or let me know via the comments section & I’ll get in touch.

APBC Next!

 

 

 

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Scott Forrest
Scott Forrest
2 months ago

I didn’t realize that Doug was such a Peterson fan. I always enjoy talking with Doug when I visit Poulsbo, and he was a great help giving me advice when I first started collecting meerschaum pipes. It’s great to see a story about him in your blog, Mark!

Jorgen Jensen
Jorgen Jensen
2 months ago

Thank you Doug.

William Auld
William Auld
2 months ago

Wonderful article, Doug, which brings back many fond memories. I, too, was a history grad student in the mid 70s and a pipe was a “required” accessory. All the makers and blends you mention were the favourites here on the East Coast as well. We had several Tinderbox locations but I mostly frequented the small independents who, save one, are sadly long gone. I laughed about the Danish freehands – yes I have a couple … Your shop is perfect!

John H. Schantz Jr.
John H. Schantz Jr.
2 months ago

Great little history lesson🙂. I remember going into “The Mall” here in Billings when it was first built and The Tinderbox was one of my favorite stores. I love the smell of fresh tobacco. I might have been 15 at the time. They had all kinds of cool things, including pipes🙂 Even back then I use to look at them as “objects d’art” and enjoy the craftsmanship, through the glass case only though🙁. Sadly, my father was a heavy cigarette smoker and I was very much against smoking, so even when I went to college in 1982, I did not… Read more »

Douglas Owen
Douglas Owen
2 months ago

Mark, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your great job on the bio. FYI, just a couple of very minor corrections, the store is open 7 days a week and we ditched the 800 phone number years ago, the phone now is 360 697 1424. Again many thanks.

DOUG OWEN
DOUG OWEN
2 months ago
Reply to  Mark Irwin

Yes, Salty is the latest of four Springers I have had over the past 45 years, she is under my desk every day and like all Springers she is a extremely faithful companion and protector.

Steven Hersey
Steven Hersey
2 months ago

A lovely story following the rise and seeming demise of the pipe world, then recalibrating the whole thing for present day pipe smokers.
I can remember in the eighties when pipes simply stopped being seen. I think it was partly due to so many tobacconists closing down at the time, and society’s tastes and preferences changing.
A finely written article which captures the romance of pipe smoking in youth and the steady long term appeal for those who stick at it down the years.
Thank you Mark and Mr. Owen. A great read.
S

Troy Lambrecht
Troy Lambrecht
2 months ago

Any chance of those price still being around? Excellent article and glad to see another Petefreak share their experience. Mark, I can imagine we will be seeing a new face every month? This is working!

Erik .B.
Erik .B.
2 months ago

Great Article I like Peterson Pipes Alot I’ve got Several

Last edited 2 months ago by Erik .B.
Marlowe
Marlowe
2 months ago

What a fun read! Thanks Doug for that and to Mark for inviting him to post.