Hidden gem : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Hidden gem

•By Stephen A. Ross•

If you’ve never attended the Chicagoland International Pipe & Tobacciana show, chances are you’ve never heard of The Briar & The Burley, a full-service tobacco shop located in Bloomington, Ind., that has a selection of pipes matched by very few tobacco shops in the United States. Mike Fisher, proprietor of The Briar & The Burley since 1972, attends the show regularly, displaying part of the wide selection of briar pipes and tinned tobaccos that he sells from his shop located just a few blocks away from Indiana University.

“I do the pipe show in Chicago,” the 64-year-old Fisher explains. “It’s a neat show and it’s great to see so many people who are as passionate about pipes as I am. Of course, I spend more damn money at the show than I make. I always find something I have to have.”

Fisher has something of a collector’s mentality because that’s how he got started in the premium tobacco business, opening a 375-square-foot store that was just one block from campus. After spending eight years earning undergraduate and graduate degrees at IU, Fisher took a job working for an apartment management firm. While a student at IU, Fisher had picked up pipe smoking. As he developed his palate, Fisher sought tobaccos that weren’t readily available in Bloomington. Tired of making the roughly 50-mile drive north to Indianapolis for the premium tobaccos and high-grade pipes he sought, Fisher considered opening his own store. Bloomington being a college town, Fisher reasoned that it needed a premium tobacco shop.

While still working at the apartment management firm, Fisher opened The Briar & The Burley. His father-in-law minded the shop when Fisher was engaged with his primary job’s responsibilities, and Fisher worked at the shop on nights and weekends.

While he worked a grueling schedule between a full-time job and being a business owner, Fisher enjoyed it. And when the apartment firm decided to sell the complex to another firm, Fisher found out that his services would no longer be needed.

“I found out on a Wednesday that I would be out of a job by that Friday,” he says with a smile spreading across his face. “I was out of a job, so I made this my profession. Forty years later I’m still doing it.”

And the business has grown and evolved throughout the years. From that original 375-square-foot space, Fisher moved into a bigger store even closer to campus. Then he had an opportunity to rent a space at Bloomington’s College Mall, where he stayed for 23 years until the mall changed its policy regarding smoking inside his store. Fisher then moved to Fountain Square, where the Monroe County Courthouse is located. This past summer, he moved a few doors down to his current location, a 3,200-square-foot space that was once a bank building, on the corner of College and Kirkwood Avenues, perhaps Bloomington’s busiest intersection.

“Downtown Bloomington is pretty amazing for a small town,” Fisher explains. “Downtown is just thriving. You have a Hilton and a Courtyard by Marriott here. All the neat restaurants are downtown. Most downtowns are dying but Bloomington’s is thriving. This store probably is the prime location of all of downtown. Everybody coming to Bloomington for an IU game will come down College Avenue. Being on the corner of College and Kirkwood is the best location. When people come to town, they want to go to the mom-and-pop shops and restaurants.”

A jack-of-all-trades sort, Fisher built all of the display cases and cabinets in which he showcases his wares. Throughout the years, Fisher has added other items to complement his selection of premium cigars and pipes. He has become a seller of finer luggage and briefcases. He also displays men’s accessories, such as high-end shaving equipment. And then there is the Formula 1 and other racing series memorabilia and souvenirs, such as flags, die-cast car replicas and T-shirts for Ferrari, McLaren, BMW and Red Bull, that occupy a section of the store, surrounding Fisher’s 308 Ferrari, part of his car collection, which he plans to display inside his store periodically.

An amateur racer who regularly beat an Indianapolis 500 champion during his Formula Ford days and an avid car collector, Fisher explains why he sells such an odd, but cool, assortment of products.

Please read the rest of this article in the pages of P&T magazine or in our online digital edition).

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Category: Feature Article, Spring 2012

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