I am pleased far beyond words to bring you the first in a two-part interview with Shane Ireland, one of the greats in our pipe community. As you may know, he was awarded the Master of Pipes at the 2022 Chicago pipe show, an honor richly deserved. I was able to connect with him a few weeks after the show and then again recently. His first good pipe was a Pete System 303 and he now companions a number of them.
Shane is a master in every sense of the word, a man so genuine in his passion about life and about pipes and tobaccos (among other things) that just to be with him ignites a similar positive energy. That he serves our community from the trade side is all the more remarkable.
Mark: Where did you grow up? What was your life before Smokingpipes.com?
Shane: : I was born and raised in San Diego until I was twenty-five, when Sykes Wilford made me an offer to come work for Smokingpipes. I grew up listening to classic and prog rock and began playing stringed instruments really young, mostly electric bass. Besides that, I also played played cello and double bass in the high school orchestra and euphonium and tuba in the marching band. I played in jazz ensembles through high school and afterwards. I could play pretty much everything Rush or Pink Floyd ever recorded.
My Dad and his brothers had a handful of bar bands, playing Top 40 stuff on the weekends. I once had a gig with a group of teachers outside of school. One was an excellent guitar player, one a great pianist but they needed a bass player. I did that from a fairly early age for extra money. I played in high school musicals and during summers played in a handful of jazz festivals in Southern Cal, most notably at Fullerton College. I’ve also played in a handful of heavier rock groups that played original music as well as top 40 stuff, which got pretty boring. I can’t even tell you how many times I had to play “Love Shack” in a bar. I’m a huge Zeppelin fan. I love Charles Mingus.
Then after high school, I worked in the music business on the sales side and sold high-end instruments and went to the NAMM Show [National Association of Music Merchants] every year. But after awhile it got a little heart-breaking peeking behind the curtain to see that’s it so not about the music but the money. I had just had enough of it.
Mark: Do you still play professionally?
Shane: No, after I moved to South Carolina I had to scale back to just playing for fun. It had gotten to where all the fun had been sucked out of it for me when I was trying to do it for a living. It was more of a job than a hobby.
Mark: When did you get interested in the pipe?
Shane: I started smoking a pipe at 18 as soon as I was legally able to walk into a real tobacconist’s. I had been smoking cigarettes since early adolescence, but even then I was really interested in trying a big variety. I would wonder what’s the nose like? what’s different about this cigarette? What’s Turkish tobacco? oh, you can roll cigarettes yourself? I was always hunting for different flavor profiles and trying to expand my knowledge.
You can NOT visit San Diego and NOT visit Racine & Laramie.
(One of their vintage Petes, BTW, is in the Pete book!)
There’s a lovely shop in San Diego your readers may know about, Racine & Laramie. It’s in Old Town. Been there forever. Geoffrey Mogliner, the owner, has a great collection of antique pipes, including early Petersons. The store has a cool vibe and the guys that worked there were super helpful.
I went in and bought my first pipe, which was a Peterson second that was stamped ‘Racine and Laramie,’ a full-bent basket pipe. I smoked that a little while with a couple of the aromatic tobaccos they sold up front on the counter. Being a cigarette smoker, I came back a couple days later and said, “Guys, these smell good but they don’t taste how they smell. And beyond that, I’m not getting any flavor or strength.” I’d smoke my pipe and then go and smoke a cigarette or two.
One of the guys said, “It sounds like you might need something a little stronger. Are you interested in whiskeys at all?” I said yes. even thought was only 18. “I like a scotch every once in a while.” And he handed me a jar and said, “Okay, try this.” I stuck my nose in it and thought, “‘Oh my God, this is completely different from anything I’ve ever experienced.” It was their Burley English, a burley-based shop blend they make with Turkish and Latakia and it sparked my interest. I think English blends are great for beginners because they’re really forgiving. You can puff on them like crazy and they’ll never bite your tongue or heat up the pipe.
That was the only tobacco I smoked for a couple of years. I would go every few months and buy another eight ounces. Eventually Joe, who still works there, gave me a tin of MacBaren HH Mature Virginia, now discontinued. I went home and smoked the Burley English and the Mature Virginia for awhile. Then tried Peter Stokkybye’s Luxury Bullseye Flake, and that sent me down the path to becoming a diehard virginia and vaper guy and I spent the next several years just sampling every variety I could get my hands on.
Mark: When did you get your first nice Peterson?
Shane: It was around that same time. It was a System 303 rustic. I actually don’t have that pipe anymore, sadly. But I have many other 303s. It’s probably my favorite Peterson shape, even though I have quite a few 317s and 220s.
Mark: How did you get to South Carolina and Smokingpipes?
Shane: I graduated high school early and started work immediately. I had done a lot of gigging through high school to make money, and afterwards I continued playing but was also working at a music shop. I did a little bit of instrument repair, sold a lot of stuff and played at night with various groups.
When the 2007-2008 economic crash hit San Diego, the sales side of things slowed down in the music business and I ended up transitioning from working at the music shop to working at a bank, where I continued for six or seven years.
While working at the bank, I was going to the Chicago and West Coast pipe shows every year. Already a Smokingpipes customer, I would drop around their table and visit with Sykes and the others. In early 2014 Sykes was in San Diego visiting Jeff Gracik [J. Alan pipes], who was a mutual friend and was hosting a seminar for pipe makers at his home and workshop. I used to hang out at Jeff’s shop quite a bit, and since he was in town Sykes asked me, kind of on a whim, if I’d be interested in moving to South Carolina because they were looking for a copywriter, which turned out to be my first job for them. I sent them some writing samples, writing new descriptions for a few pipes on their website and emailed those in. And then I got a phone call the next day asking if they could put me on a flight!
I thought I’d be a copywriter forever but before long I began working part-time in customer service, splitting my time between the two departments for the first year or so I was here. Then they needed a sales associate for the Laudisi Distribution Group selling Savinelli and Cornell & Diehl. I did that for a period of time, then there was an opening to be a pipe purchaser and it seemed like a natural fit, which snowballed into my involvement in the Smokingpipes division at a higher level.
Mark: What’s your title now, and what does your work involve these days?
Shane: S: I’m the Vice President of Retail Laudisi Enterprises and more specifically, Director of Smokingpipes.com. A few years ago the job looked different and was referred to as a General Manager position. But as the director of SPC, I oversee that entire division. Laudisi’s divisions include Peterson of Dublin, Cornell & Diehl and Laudisi Distribution Group. So I oversee everything SPC: the Customer Service, Merchandizing (photographers, copywriters, data-entry), Estate Restoration and Low Country Pipe & Cigar (our brick & mortar in South Carolina).
When I first got the position as director, we didn’t have as robust of a layer of management as we do now, I had nearly thirty people reporting to me directly. That’s not a crazy number, but I was spread pretty thin because they all did such different work. It got to the point where I was spending a lot of time identifying and working closely with the guys that are now in management positions reporting to me directly: Customer Service Manager Steve Moby, Merchandising Manager Truett Smith, SPC Asst. Director Cassie Davison, Purchasing Manager Bill Lloyd and Adam Davidson, the Estate Manager. So the management piece of my job is a good chunk of it for sure. I try to be as available and hands-on as my guys need me to be while giving them plenty of breathing room, and most don’t need me all that much, which is fantastic.
I also spend a lot of time evaluating estate pipes, especially when we’re behind because Adam is otherwise buried or people go on vacation. The other main chunk of my job is purchasing, which I’ve actually been doing longer than I’ve been director. That involves a lot of close relationships with artisan pipe makers, distributors and directly with brands we buy from directly. I spend somewhere between 30 and 50% of my time traveling, and if it’s not to a pipe show then it’s to a factory or group of workshops to source pipes for the website.
Mark: Whoa. That’s a lot of hats! Whenever I think about SPC as a business (which isn’t often, I suppose), I inevitably wonder at what kind of business model created this company. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard about. Back when I knew something about psychology in the 1980s and 90s, theorists used to speak of hierarchical versus web models. The hierarchical is what we’re all familiar with: “top-down,” patriarchal, the ladder, whatever you want to call it. That’s how the military, the state, most churches, school districts and Western businesses are conducted.
Then there’s the web model popularized by ethicist Carol Gilligan (In A Different Voice) and Stephen Covey (The 7 Habits) which emphasize a kind of 360° accountability in a workplace or community and a relational rather than authority model of interaction. It seems to me Laudisi uses this web model and has been enormously successful with it. You have your hands on everything, managing, mentoring and doing what in other environments might seem like grunt work. That’s highly unusual.
Shane: I’m more comfortable working in a structure like this than I would be in something that’s a little more hierarchical or corporate. I think it’s worked because that’s how Sykes Wilford has always done it, and I think he and I are of similar temperaments in that regard. We like to be highly involved. We like to afford employees a degree of autonomy and a lot of trust. That’s the culture here. I don’t feel like I have to put on like my boss’s hat or play the boss card much. Most of the time it feels like I’m collaborating with the people who report to me. We consider ourselves as trying to achieve the same thing on the same team, so the reporting structure can be a little on the loose side. Or maybe it’s just not the focus. It’s not the most important thing here. And I’m sure we’ve all worked at companies where that’s not the case.
Let me give you an example. I spend a lot of time overseeing the decision-making about what goes on the website, which day, what we are updating at what times. To do this I work on the brand strategies and promotions picking pipes personally to go to the website for various reasons. We have a whole pool of estate pipes: when are we going to put them up? Monday? Thursday? There was a point where I was doing all of that largely by myself, but at this point while there’s a group of us that do it I still want to be involved. It may seem kind of silly on the face of it—why would I bother deciding how many Peterson 999s [the most popular shape] to put up on a Monday? Because I’m heavily involved on the purchasing side, I have the sales data for what I’m looking at when we buy pipes for the website. But then I have a second set of data about what is selling and how quickly it’s selling in the short term—bite-sized chunks of time—and that allows us to react dynamically on the purchasing side. If I wasn’t involved on both sides of the process, the results wouldn’t be as good. But this kind of involvement is also true of Sykes as well. We try to be involved at every stage of the process because it gives us a better macro view. That’s one reason we’re good at what we do. Too many companies have a big lag time between spotting a trend and reacting to it and measuring the correct reaction.
Mark: Where does your passion for tobaccos and pipes come from? As enthusiastic as you are about the hobby, I’m curious if you have other strong interests as well.
Shane: I don’t really have hobbies but I’m sort of envious of people that can be casually interested in something because it sounds really fun. But I don’t know how to do that. I just completely obsess over whatever it is that fascinates me. I’m that way about tea and teapots. I’m that way about musical instruments. The only other thing in my life that could compete with pipes and tobaccos would be music, because from a very early age I was exposed to a lot of music. I had family members that were musicians and saw them play all the time, so I was just tinkering with them. Stringed instruments mostly, and it just clicked with me. The same with smoking.
When I step back, I think I got my fascination with pipes from my grandfather on my mother’s side. He was a Navy commander and smoked a pipe throughout his career. He had quit by the time I was a teenager, but when I was young he still had his pipe rack. It was one of those old round racks with a jar in the middle and all these pipes on it, which sat on his desk in his office at home. I spent a lot of time when I was young at his house, then as an adolescent went to live them with for a time. He said when I was eighteen I could have his pipes, and later on when he wasn’t smoking anymore, every time I got a new pipe I’d show it to him and he’d say, “Oh yeah, that’s nice. That’s a good shape” He was from the generation that thought of pipes as disposable items. He just smoked the hell out of one until he needed a new pipe. He had a bunch of pipes that were abused, because that’s what one did back then. The shank would be cracked or the tenon broken and haphazardly glued back together. I asked him why so many were broken and he said, “When you were a toddler we couldn’t keep you out of the office and you’d go in, grab the pipes, stick your face in the tobacco jar and smell it.” I can still smell the Prince Albert. I got busted for breaking the shanks on several of those!
There are parallels for me between tea drinking, pipes and playing music. You have the tea and then the vessels for brewing and drinking it. You have the tobacco itself and you have the tools for smoking it. Then there’s the music and the instruments for playing it. There are design elements common to each. Then when you use those things over and over, there’s the companionship of these objects that really interests me: a guitar I’ve played my whole life; a pipe that’s traveled the world with me or that I bought at a certain time that was significant. A tea pot that’s well-seasoned and well-cared for. They can each be handed down or just join me on my journey. You don’t see this in many other hobbies.
I love a good cigar, but once you light it up and burn it, it’s gone. I don’t have a strong emotional connection to my cigar cutter or lighter. But with pipes and pipes and musical instruments and tea vessels, they’re things I bond with over time. It’s a little cheesy, but every pipe I have is like that—I either got it from somebody I know really well or to celebrate a moment in my life that was special or maybe it was just a whim but the pipe smoked great.
It’s because of this companionship thing that I’ve always been a collector. I think collecting the collecting bug is something most pipe guys have in common, but beyond that, it’s the relationship you form with these things. They’re beautiful, they’re functional, but you’d feel lost without them, like something is missing if you weren’t carrying them around every day and using them all the time.
Mr. Ireland receiving the Master of Pipes at the Chicago show, 2022,
(Canadian artisan Michael Parks on right)
A Master Class in Pipe Smoking
with Shane Ireland