169. Why We Love Peterson: An Interview with Glen Whelan

If you want to understand what Peterson’s all about, what Peterson’ been all about, then you need to learn a bit about its essential Irishness. And there’s no better way to do that than to spend an hour or two with one of Peterson (and Ireland’s) great ambassadors, Glen Whelan, Sales Director at Peterson. Affable and engaging, he can effortlessly make your day go just a little better and in doing so begin to understand just why it is that you’ve always loved Peterson.

When did you first enter service at Peterson?

Officially, I began working in the store part-time, Saturday and Sunday doing retail and serving customers in 2003. Before that, when I was thirteen or fourteen I would come to the factory maybe ever other Saturday with my father Tony, Jr. [now retired, former factory manager] to sweep the floor and dust down the machines.

Tony Whelan, Jr., Glen’s Dad, now semi-retired, was formerly
factory manager and now helps out several days a week.

My dad would just be doing his regular day-to-day stuff. He used to joke that could get more done on a Saturday morning than he would in the whole week, because there were no disturbances. And he’d have a couple of other people in with him, people who are versatile and can bounce between stations, like Jonathan Fields [current factory manager]. But I would just be tidying up. It wasn’t about getting paid so much as getting out of the house and spending some time with my dad.

Back then, it was a trek for us to get out. Monday through Friday there was a bus just for Peterson employees that would pick them up in the city center. But on Saturday, we’d have to take a regular Dublin bus to get in and to get out. And that bus didn’t just come straight here—it went on a regular Dublin sight-seeing tour and took forever. So I’d dread going home at the end of the day!

My brother Allen used to work here as well—for about eight years. He was in BTA—bowl turning and assembly. Peterson is ingrained so much in my family that I think we’ve become institutionalized by now. I always joke with my father that I had the hard job—he just made the pipes, but I had to sell them! It doesn’t feel like seventeen years.

How old were you when you started work here?

Fifteen when I started in the shop. I turned sixteen in 2003. It was initially just going to be a pocket money job while I finished school. I’d work at the week end and all my school holidays I’d work through, but an opening became available full time.

I originally wanted to be a pilot when I was in school, with military as back-up to achieve that goal. But I failed the higher-level physics exam, which you had to be able to do and I was about five per cent off passing, so I had to rethink, and I applied to go into the British Air Force through a family member—I would have had to apply for dual citizenship. I was a bit of a home boy at the time, and I began to think going away would be tough, especially with the service commitment you’d have to give. And there was a lot of crazy stuff going on in the world then that the UK were involved with—Afghanistan and all. So I thought twice and it just seemed perfect timing when an opening became available in the store and I jumped at it.

A young Glen in 2009 at the Grafton Street shop, doubtless wondering what this
American fecker (me) wants now.

When I started in the shop there were three full-time people and four part-time people, and at Christmas time we’d have Harry Phelan’s son David come in, which would make eight people in the shop working at Christmas. And it wasn’t enough—we were still serving two or three people at a time. That was at the height of the Celtic Tiger, when people were spending money like it was going out of fashion. The four part-timers were myself, Tom Palmer’s two sons Conor [former Director of Sales] and Sean, and Harry’s son David as well. And you know the old shop on Grafton Street, there wasn’t as much space, so we’d do lunch in blocks, and there’d be four of us standing. You’d almost need to be a contortionist to eat your food.

The Grafton Street shop, 2009

I worked at the shop for thirteen years, until September 2016 when I came out to the office here at the factory. I went through a refit of the Grafton Street shop and a move to the Nassau Street shop. Then I came to the office at Sallynoggin kind of as Conor Palmer’s understudy. I’d known him since we were both kids of course, and kept in touch with him even when he was out of the trade—more friends that colleagues, actually.

I love retail because of the people you meet every day and the stories you hear from them, but it can wear thin when you have a young family—you’re getting photos of what they’re doing on the weekend instead of being there yourself. So when he asked me to come out here, it was perfect timing.

What kinds of changes have you seen in pipe buying in those years?

Generally, customers are getting younger. I don’t know whether that’s a combination of seeing pipe smoking in TV and film—like when Tarantino’s Django Unchained came out in 2012, the pipe in that film was a carbon-copy of our long-stemmed calabash D16 (seen below) and sales for that pipe soared. It was young guys at Trinity College coming across the street to the store.

And the same thing happened with the films from Lord of the Rings—almost all the young people were starting on churchwarden pipes. And then they’d come in the store and say, “I can’t smoke this.” We’d try to tell them the churchwarden is one of the most difficult pipes you can begin with as a pipe smoker. You’ll lose heart with the art if you begin with this kind of pipe. The draw is just quite difficult to master, it’s a slower draw that you have to build to your mouth. You can’t get it the smoke up in just one draw. It’s like playing the bagpipes in reverse: you have to slowly draw the air out of the churchwarden and build it up.

We’d try to talk them out of a churchwarden for their first pipe if we could, and convince them and they’d go on the System. I can smoke the churchwarden, but I prefer the functionality of a pipe I can put in my pocket and go outside with if I want.

The Nassau Street Shop

The second thing is that people are being drawn to the aesthetics of pipes. I think social media has had a huge hand in that. Not that people like to brag, but they like to showcase their collections. And people see a whole collection laid out in a nice photograph and it draws conversation out—“Oh my God! What’s that pipe second to the left? I have to get one of them.” And they already have a wish list.

Jim Lilley was good at that for the short time he was blogging, featuring whatever new pipes he’d bought.

That’s right, generating interest in the brand. Laudisi—Smokingpipes.com—have really stepped up the whole industry by how they market pipes and make the customer feel like he needs to have this pipe. Europeans on the other hand are often very prudent when it comes to extravagant purchases. You wouldn’t get Irish guys going into the shop and spending four or five hundred euros on a pipe. It just never happens. They think about it and are very methodical in how they process all the information and weigh up the value: “Should I get this pipe for four hundred euros when I could get four Standard Systems which I know I love for the same amount?” Now of course there are sites where you can do layaway on a pipe you see, and that helps stimulate interest in the brand as well.

Do you think the world-wide pipe community is getting larger, or just younger?

I think it’s getting larger, particularly in America, but also in the UK, where pipe smoking has just gone through the roof. Russia is another market I’ve seen a lot of growth in, where they like classic style and craft, and we hit both those spots.

You have a distributor in Russia?

Yes we do. We just appointed him in 2018.

What about China? I know they’ve shown great interest in high-dollar artisan pipes, but what about Peterson?

Yes, we have a distributor there as well. We have a shipment leaving for China today, would you believe? China is a market that is growing for us as well. The Chinese people are fantastic customers in the sense that, if a group of four tourists comes into the Dublin shop, each guy wants to spend more than the one before him. They shop with a tour guide who speaks perfect English and whose job is to bring them in to the high-end shops. Some of the big department stores have clerks now that speak Mandarin to help the Chinese customers.

What effect have the tobacco labeling laws had on the Peterson store?

The store has never been busier in terms of pipe sales. They’ve had to diversity a little more in the product they have in the store, because if you just had pipes and tobaccos, you’d have a beautiful display of pipes and a terrible looking area for tobacco because of the health warnings. They have a terrible shade of green in the packaging with photos everywhere. So the store has had to be quite creative in how they display the tobacco.

Can you comment on the decision to let go of Peterson’s portfolio of tobaccos, which I know Tom Palmer was proud of and took great pains to build up throughout the Dublin era (1991-2018), several new blends appearing even in the last two years or so of his tenure?

In the past five years, particularly in the past two, tobacco legislation in Ireland has become so stringent, there’s red tape everywhere. But it’s not just here. Each country now has different law requirements for how the tobacco has to be labeled and even packaged—how it goes in, how it comes out—and Peterson, in terms of tobacco sales, was relatively small. It was just one line of tobaccos, compared to STG [Scandinavian Tobacco Group] who not only have their own line of tobacco but blend for others. They’ve got enough muscle in the industry to be able to absorb these kind of changes and legislation. It was becoming increasingly difficult for us and in some territories just impossible to keep up with the legislation. Most countries are going to go to a powder-colored tin. It won’t be a gold-colored tin anymore. The tin will have to be a particular color, and each country will be a different color. They won’t make it easy.

In the UK I’ve heard its going to mostly loose tobacco.

Right. In Ireland it can’t be loose tobacco because it has to have the tax stamp on the package. And it’s too open for mis-weighing. It was just impossible for Peterson to sustain its lines in the face of all that.

Do you know that after McClelland’s closed, pipe sales declined for four to six weeks? People had spent all their disposable income stocking up on McClelland’s! Guys were taking out bank loans just to buy a ridiculous amount of tobacco that they couldn’t possibly get through in a lifetime.

“No Virginia, there is no more Christmas Cheer.”

What do you wish more people knew about Peterson?

Ireland is almost built around hospitality and a warm welcome, and I think that’s been part of Peterson from the beginning. It’s a welcoming brand. There’s an Irish expression, “Céad Míle Fáilte,” it literally means “one hundred thousand welcomes” or “you are welcome a thousand times—wherever you come from, whosoever you be.” I talk to some of my friends, they get to Sunday night and might feel resentful that they have to go in the next day. But it’s not like that here. I’m very lucky in that I love coming into work and I think that’s a testament to the company not just now but throughout its history.

Jason Hinch, cutting strip silver for Sterling Caps

But the one thing I tell people is that I wish they’d come do a tour of the factory. Just to see the craft that’s involved. Making pipes is a craft. It takes a long time for people to be trained up, and then how long they stay working in that craft is amazing. It’s a labor of love, and I don’t think people fully appreciate that when they look at a pipe in the shop or online. You see it and think it’s just two pieces and it’s easy to suppose that all we do is assemble those two pieces.

Keith Healy, bowling coating the new 406s

I’d love for them to come out to the factory and see all the processes involved in getting a pipe to a shop or online dealer. How the pipe starts off like—from Willy grading the unstained bowls as they come in, to BTA where they’re drilled, to Warren in papering where the bowl and stem are sanded and fit, to staining, to Jason’s silverwork and on through finishing. Watching Jason create a boxwood mandrel to spin the silver on. I think people often assume the silver just comes in ready to mount. I think there’s a lack of appreciation for the craft—and I’m not just saying that for Peterson, either, but all pipes.

Warren Byrne in papering

I’m very lucky in that I love coming into work. I talk to some of my friends, they get to Sunday night and might feel resentful that they have to go in the next day. But it’s not like that here, and I think that’s a testament to the company, not just now but throughout its history.

Do you have a favorite memory or memories?

I have a group of memories, of working in the store around Christmas. The buzz around Dublin city center is amazing around Christmas. You’re working from December 10th to December 24th without a day off because it’s so busy. You go in at 9 in the morning and come out at 8 in the evening, but it doesn’t feel like work. You never check the clock once.

There’s no place like Dublin at Christmas. We have celebrities—regulars at the store—who come in at Christmas, like Colm Meaney, who comes in every Christmas Eve without fail to buy a Zippo lighter for his assistant. I mean every Christmas Eve. And then one year we decided to close earlier at 4pm and Colm hadn’t come in. We said, “We’d better hang on,” and sure enough, about ten past 4 he comes in!

But there’s also a funny story that happened not long ago. I went over to a famous pipe club meeting which met at an equally famous tobacco shop. And I was just doing the rounds, talking to people, because it was also a Peterson event. And I was talking to a guy, probably in his 80s, who said he’d got the train and come down from a town about 3 ½ hours away that morning. And I asked him if was staying in town that day, and he said no, he’d take the train back home that evening. And I was chatting away and telling him a story and stopped to ask him about the Peterson he was smoking. I noticed his head was down and I thought, “He’s dead!” I was about to tap him on the arm and ask him if he was okay when I looked and saw that smoke was still coming out of his pipe. So he was smoking in his sleep. I thought, well, if he’s dying, that’s the way to go, isn’t it—with your Peterson pipe in your mouth, still lit. All the club members got a good laugh out of that.

Glen, Josh Burgess and Willy Murray discussing a new shipment of bowls


Many thanks to Glen Whelan
Photo of Warren Byrne courtesy of Peterson
Other photos by Chas. Mundungus




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