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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Interview with Uptown's

Biz News - One more Goblin has crawled into the catalog, the largest one yet...

Today's pic is an oldie, an uncropped group shot of the 2002 Ligne Bretagne Yule pipes. 2002 was the last year I made a Yule pipe. There has been some discussion for this year, though.... but that can wait till a future blog post. Today, I have an excellent little interview with Kevin Getten of Uptown's Smoke Shop, where we talk a bit about his views of the shop and its place in today's pipe biz. Enjoy!
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Me: What do you do at Uptown's? What's your part of the business?

Kevin: I am the Pipe Office Manager, my job responsibilities range from online orders, updating the website, taking pictures for the site, calling customers when new pipes come in. Most of our customers know what I am getting in before it arrives and I call them and send images of pipes. Other customers I call and describe the pipe and they take it on my recommendation. I am always on the phone talking to customers. Either I call them or they call me. I feel like it goes beyond a customer/retailer relationship. I consider them friends. Sometimes we just talk about our favorite tobaccos. I also help out a lot on the sales floor selling cigars and humidors. I spend a lot of time behind the tobacco counter helping customers with pipe tobacco. Customers will bring in samples of tobacco they can not purchase anymore and I try to match the blends. That is one of the best parts of my job. One customer was so happy he came back a few hours later with a bottle of wine for me. Once we find the right blend, we keep a log of it and our customers keep coming back when they run out.

Me: Tell me where you see Uptowns in the pipe world today.

Kevin: I see Uptowns expanding in a few different directions. The high grade pipes still sell as soon as we get them in. Our customers are pretty loyal. As soon as they arrive they are sold. The pipes sell so quick I do not have a chance to put them on the web. My high grade customers are in two categories; people that have been collecting for years and are looking for specific shapes and the other half are the people just discovering high grades. They have always been interested in buying a high grade but were hesitant because of the price. But almost every time they make the decision to buy the pipe, they smoke it and realize what a great smoking experience it is and they eventually call me to order another one.

We are also growing our local, walk in business. We have a lot of college students coming in buying their first pipe, and we take the time to walk them through packing, cleaning and smoking a pipe. They start to smoke the pipe and enjoy it and a few days later they bring in five of their friends to try it. As they learn how to smoke they advance to another pipe and before you know it they are buying Castellos and Rinaldos and other hand made pipes.

Uptowns is also here to support Amercan carvers. We have a few surprises coming up in our quarterly catalog that will hopefully expose some great new American pipemakers to our customers.

Me: A few years ago, you guys were practically THE shop for super high grades in the US, but in intervening years a number of other high-end shops have appeared. Do you intend to keep fighting for the "rare air" of the top spot, broaden your appeal across the market, or both?

Kevin: We plan on doing both. Those other high grade shops are doing a great job. The way I look at it is we are all in the same business and each shops success only expands the hobby. I have bought pipes in the past from those shops before I worked here. And everyone that I dealt with was great. Our main competitors are being run by friendly, knowledgeable people that are only making the hobby better and making other high grades accessible to the general consumer. It's great to get together at pipe shows and talk about the business. Its nice to see how other retailers see the business and to have their perspective on market trends, hot new pipemakers etc.

Me: Related to the previous question, I know you guys caught a lot of flack in the 90's for essentially ushering in the era of the super-expensive pipe... at least in the popular pipe culture. People today don't bat an eye over the profusion of $900 pipes on the market, but that wasn't always the case. What can you tell me about the pluses and minuses of essentially having been trail blazers in the world of high grade collecting?

Kevin: The pluses far outweigh the negatives. When I was in college I read all about Uptowns and new about their reputation in the market place. When I was hired there was still that mentality. I remember my first pipe show I was told not to talk to certain people and just concentrate on our table. That was remedied shortly after that and I was put in charge of the Pipe Office. Now at pipe shows, anybody (even other carvers) are more then welcome to come up to our table and examine the pipes we have. Where before most pipemakers and pipesmokers I have talked to said they felt uncomfortable doing that.I remember my first day here, I stayed in my office all day and held my first Chonowitsch, Ivarsson and S Bang and it was an amazing experience just to hold these pipes I had only read about for years.

I feel I am slowly changing the perception of Uptowns in the market place. Our customers love us, yet I know there are people out there that refuse to do business with us because of the way the we did business in the past, which I understand. But what I tell people when this topic comes up is that we cater to the whole pipe market.We have customers that only call us during our catalog and purchase $15.00 estate pipes and we have customers that buy only high grade pipes. We have also experienced a big increase in brands like Ardor,Rinaldo,Radice,Stanwell and Savinelli. I think we cover the whole spectrum.

Me: Do you folks do any repair work in-house?

Kevin: We do mostly restoration. I have buffing wheels in the back and I restore pipes. We have a few processes that are unique to our shop and our pipes look brand new after we are done. I also clean and restore every estate pipe we sell in our catalog. We average 200 estate pipes each catalog, so I get a lot of practice whether it is an old, abused Medico all the way up to an S Bang.

Me: What about pipemaking in-house? There's a grand tradition of quality
"house brands" on this side of the ocean, and I'm curious if there is/might be an Uptown-brand pipe.

Kevin: We do carry a Savinelli pipe that is branded Uptowns Smoke Shop that retails for $79.00. I have also talked to a few new pipemakers about doing a house pipe for us. But I want it to be something unique. I would love it to retail for less than $100.00 and be a well made pipe and a great smoker.

Me: The same question for tobacco - Do you have your own blends, and if so, tell me a bit about them. Particularly the "tough" question, of, do you actually get involved in the recipes and leaf sourcing and all, or are we talking about the usual house blends made by mixing a few Lane bulk tobacs together?

Kevin: We carry a large selection of Lane and Stokkebye tobaccos. We sell a lot of bulk tobacco. Just as an example, we go through 40 pounds of our Green Hills blend a week.

We also have quite a few house blends that are actually blended by hand in the shop. Our most popular is Black Lung. It is a 70% percent Latakia blend with Cyprian and Syrian Latakia. We also have Lord Alfred which a Virginia Oriental blend and Caney Fork which is a popular Burley blend. These were all house blends before I arrived, but I plan on blending some new tobaccos. I really want to make a great cigar leaf blend. I have a lot of people go from cigars to blends like Robert Lewis 123 and Fox's Bankers. It is a great transition.
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I hope you've enjoyed this little peek behind the scenes with Uptown's Smoke Shop!