Books old and new : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Books old and new

”]Seeing Gary Schrier at a pipe show is like spotting a rare pipe: he’s easily recognizable from across the room—his style is as unique as the work of a great pipemaker. It’s not just the handlebar mustache or tweed vest; it’s the way he carries himself and interacts with other pipe enthusiasts that sets him apart. He’s in his element, swimming like some confident and distinguished marine creature surveying and mingling with a reef ecosystem of pipes, hobbyists, literature, tobaccos and all that makes pipe collecting what it is. 

Schrier has become a steward of the unusual and arcane in the knowledge base of the pipe smoking/collecting community. His specialty is calabash pipes; he wrote and published the first and only comprehensive guide to that pipe, The History of the Calabash Pipe—a project that antique pipe expert Ben Rapaport advised him was not only difficult, but possibly futile, because no one currently lived who knew the real story of the calabash. Schrier tackled the insurmountable aspects of that undertaking anyway, taking five years to complete the impossible.

Then he wrote and published Confessions of a Pipeman. A guide to the pipe smoking lifestyle and now in its second edition, Confessions is an amusing and opinionated treatise from Schrier’s personal perspective.

But perhaps the most important of his accomplishments is his publishing company, Briar Books Press. Aside from a handful of new titles, it publishes rare, out-of-print items of interest to pipe smokers, literature that has been difficult to find for many years: Dunhill’s 200-plus-page 1928 catalog; BBB’s 100 Years in the Service of Smokers, 1847-1947; Dunhill catalogs from 1914 and 1923; The Loewe Pipe Packet; the BBB catalog from 1912; and several other fascinating reads.

Though his family was involved in the cigar industry (Zino Davidoff was an uncle on his mother’s side), Schrier gravitated early in life to the pipe. “I started smoking in high school inthe mid-1970s,” he says, “but it was only when I took to the woods with a canoe and got serious about wilderness travel that I actually tried tobacco in a pipe.” He never cared anything for cigarettes, “but a briar pipe is a wonderful companion, and when you’re traveling alone in the Canadian bush, the long, lonely nights are made easier by it. I know of no better place to light up than in your camp by a rushing river as the fire crackles away.”

It wasn’t until the year 2000 that he felt compelled to seek out the pipe collecting community. He’d found an old calabash pipe in an antique store in Tacoma, Wash. “I bought it and smoked it heavily until the meerschaum cup exploded—seriously, it literally exploded.” The pipe had delivered a smoke so superior to his briars that he needed to learn more about this unusual style of pipe. That’s when he discovered that very little information existed. 

“I contacted Ben Rapaport, who informed me that no history on the pipe was in print, or even out of print.” The book he needed didn’t exist, so he gave it about five seconds of thought and decided to take a year and write it himself (it would end up taking five years), little knowing what would be required. “It was an opportunity to tell a story that had never been told before. How often are we given the chance to tell a story that’s affected millions of people in one way or another? It was a chance to give back to the hobby rather than just take.”

Things the Soldiers are Asking For

The writing process itself was more difficult than he had anticipated. “I can laugh about that now,” he says, “because back then I thought writing was just something begun and eventually finished.” He discovered there was much more to it than that. And then there was the research itself.

The most impressive resource he found was John J. Adler of London. “John probably knows more about English pipe trade history than any other man alive. Not the pedantic stuff the hobby seems to thrive on at times, like what Dunhill stampings mean, but the really good stuff that I needed, like company history and the people who ran the factories and marketed the brands across the globe. John’s a pipeman of the finest kind and he’s helped me with different projects since.”

Schrier also found help from several people in South Africa who still grow the calabash gourds. “Their family had been at the business from the beginning in the late 1890s. But extracting information from them was no end of challenges. We persevered. But the short of it is that were it not for a very long list of volunteers who were poked and prodded into my service, the story would have never been told. I found these good souls down the many rabbit trails I followed. As it turned out, my best resource was the one person who had done his level best to persuade me not to undertake the project: Ben Rapaport. And Ben, being an accomplished writer himself, graciously offered to be my editor, which I sorely needed.”

After tracking down people around the world, gathering all that information that had never before been gathered and finally writing the calabash history, the most daunting aspect of the project loomed: layout. As a self-publishing author, Schrier would have to decide where to place the many photos that would be included and how to arrange each page in digital files that actually resembled a book. He had no experience with that and no budget for hiring it out, but he managed it himself anyway (perhaps you’ll note a pattern here: when Gary Schrier needs particular resources and they don’t exist, he creates them). “That’s what held me up the last 18 months of production,” he says. “Now, five years and nine book productions later, I can only look at what I did then and cringe—how naïve! But I think artistic remorse is part of the process.”

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Category: Feature Article, Pipe Articles, Spring 2011

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