One winter evening in 1976, during early evening rush hour, I was quick-marching across West 46th Street to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, when I passed a tobacconist and pipe-seller working under the name Connoisseur Pipes. Inside there were rows of beautifully-carved natural finish pipes on wall mounts, a smiling gentleman on the sales and display counter, and a customer dressed in a camel’s hair overcoat, looking over a pipe he had just purchased. The owner had just swabbed out the pipe with a pipe cleaner soaked in Johnny Walker Black scotch whiskey, and the customer drank off the rest. Why waste good whiskey, after all? (Of course, years later, in the midst of recovery, I met a guy who drank rubbing alcohol, and also a woman whose favorite potation was Listerine. But what did I know?)
I asked the owner about the whiskey. I always thought rubbing alcohol would be sufficient. “I just cleaned the pipe with it,” he replied. “Would you put something through a pipe you couldn’t drink?” Made sense to me, and I never forgot it.
I was a here-and-there pipe smoker far more addicted to cigarettes. I could never quite smoke a pipe, even a good one, without inhaling the gunk into my lungs. Probably I was better off with pipes but you couldn’t tell me anything, could you?
Years later, in the later 1990s, somehow I discovered that Connoisseur Pipes had moved to a building one block from my office, in the lower plaza of a building on the Avenue of the Americas. I strolled over. The owner was the same man I recalled from 1976. Of course he was grayer but the mustache and hair were still a bit unruly, but his manner was still gracious and just a bit fussy. However, since I knew nothing about pipe smoking, I surrendered to it.
He came out from behind the counter. “I’m Ed Burak. Welcome!” I told him my name. Only later did I learn that Ed was a legend among pipe makers and dealers. He told me directly he was not a carver but a designer: he sketched out and drew what he wanted, and someone else carved it. Which may account for the prices of some of his creations. “High” doesn’t quite express it. He chose the woods that would best express his designs: beautifully grained, unpolished, perfectly balanced for the mouth. I bought my first Burak for $125. It was like smoking the essence of God. Right: you did not buy a Connoisseur, you bought a Burak.
Ed also oversaw the preparation of the tobaccos he sold. Again, they were not cheap. They were nothing but the best smoking tobaccos you’d ever find. Some I found along the way were as good, but none were better. And Ed (and his wife) had a courtly and gentle manner about them. Ed would not just sell you stuff, he’d interview you and then educate you about the art of pipe smoking. He’d do his best to match you with the pipe you could afford. You’d know pretty damn quick that if you wanted a drugstore pipe, you’d best head for the nearest Duane Reade.
Ed would discuss the art of carving and tobacco mixing. He’d discuss how to light a pipe–yes, there really is an art involved. It’s easy to learn but if you don’t learn it you’ll have a lousy smoking experience with an unlit or overly hot pipe that will burn the inside of your mouth and contribute to the real danger apart from the mythologies about pipe smoking.
Right, mythologies. I said it. I’ll repeat it.
Today I found out that almost a year ago, in February 2009, Ed went out of business. He closed the shop. The rent on the store had to be confiscatory and the taxes and other restrictions of the Bloomberg-controlled nanny state undoubtedly were killing his mail order and walk-in trade. Ed refused to put up a website. He told me he had more business than he could handle just on repeat phone and mail orders.
I hope he’d put aside enough money to live on. I hope he could latch on with a maker who has not gone under, a maker like Marks or Nachwalter.
I quit smoking in July 2005. I tried to stay on the pipe and instead went into a 711, bought a pack of American Spirit non-filters, and heard this weird voice in my head asking “Ken, what the fuck are you doing to yourself?” It’s now almost five years. The cough is long gone. One doctor I might have early-stage emphysema after 45 years of pack-a-day cigarette smoking since 1960. Another said my lungs sounded clear.
And yet there is an aspect of artistry to pipe smoking that I continue to miss. There is the design, there is the taste and smell of a really good tobacco, there are the complex acts that add up to a comfort-food experience. I have smoked some of the worst crap ever made–an aromatic tobacco called Flying Dutchman that smelled not like the sea but like the perfume in a seraglio. Others–more than I can name–were delightful and all had different tastes. Tastes. You didn’t zhluck this stuff into your lungs, you rolled it around in your mouth like you were at a wine-tasting.
With the demise of Connoisseur I find that another part of my civilized experience of New York is gone. In Pennsylvania, where I am now, there are a lot more tobacconists than in New Jersey, where I lived for over 33 years. One shop owner commented that the taxes in Jersey are confiscatory. I don’t doubt it. “Gotta find a way to keep the young ones moral after school,” like the musical said. That’s why supermarket cashiers steal cigarettes by the carton and black-market them.
Finding out about the end of Connoisseur Pipes makes me a trifle sad.
Oh…postscript…if your appetite is whetted, a mint-condition used (that’s “estate” to you collectors) Burak can cost you a month’s rent in a really good apartment. I would love to hear comments from other Connoisseur patrons who miss the place as much as I do.
PPS: I started again. A corncob followed by a “basket pipe” from A Little Taste of Cuba in New Hope, PA. I felt guilty for 30 minutes. Then I realized I like it and I’m not inhaling at all. But it’s one of those socially unapproved pastimes that make you sound a bit unsavory and dangerous, like a guy who plays with live ammunition at a Fourth of July picnic.