The writers of Smokingpipes.com : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

The writers of Smokingpipes.com

It takes a group of talented professionals to keep an online pipe and tobacco business flourishing

by Chuck Stanion

Fifteen years ago there were only limited numbers of people who would buy pipes online. The prevalent opinion was, “I can’t buy a pipe until I hold it in my hand and see it for myself.” That was understandable. Every pipe is individual, every one different—different grain, size, texture, weight, balance. Photos can be misleading as to size and even proportion; descriptions can be subjective and a pipe’s personality impossible to determine except in person (and often not even then; some pipes don’t truly reveal themselves until after many smokes). But with consistency, reputation and the trust of its customers, a business can make it work. The best online vendors now provide as much information as possible to make purchasing something as personal as a pipe that much easier. By offering clients consistent information, measurements, detailed descriptions and photos from several angles, merchants have helped pipe smokers become more comfortable with the online buying experience. It’s reached a level where many people who had no previous need of a computer have become proficient with them for the express purpose of pursuing their pipe collecting more efficiently. Indeed, many pipes can be found only online and nowhere else.

Among the most successful and innovative of these modern pipe merchants is Smokingpipes.com, run by Sykes Wilford. The site is state-of-the-art. In many ways, Wilford is the Steve Jobs of the pipe world. Though not the gazillionaire (we presume) that Jobs became, Wilford possesses a similar genius for utilizing and repurposing existing technology to provide unique products for his particular customers. One of Wilford’s defining motivations is to constantly improve the Smokingpipes.com experience.

And it is an experience. For example, Smokingpipes.com now provides secure, detailed records for its customers, who can log in and see exactly what their purchasing history is, including specific dates, number of items and totals spent. Clicking on any particular order will reveal a detailed invoice with every item listed. Clients can check how many pipes they’ve purchased in any given year or across several years, what finish those pipes have, what countries of manufacture they represent and what tobacco brands they buy (all represented in colorful graphs and charts), and thereby help to understand their own trends. For example, they might note that 75 percent of the pipes they’ve bought in the past year have been Danish estate pipes, or that 50 percent had sandblasted finishes, or that 80 percent of the tobacco they’ve bought in the past five years has been by McClelland or Mac Baren or Cornell & Diehl. Those trends will allow purchasers to refine their search strategies.

Also interesting are the badges earned by customers and displayed on their profiles. These badges are bronze, silver and gold, in categories such as number of different tobaccos tried, number of years as a customer and VIP status, among others.

Online extras such as these help generate a dynamic online experience and provide better customer service—and they are just plain fun.

But where Smokingpipes.com truly excels is in the information it relays. It stays in constant contact with its clientele through two newsletters every week that provide entertaining articles as well as rundowns of new pipes and products. These newsletters simplify things for its readers—they’re easy and fast to scroll through, so readers can quickly see if anything interests them. And if something does, a click will bring them to more detailed lists of products or a specific pipe or tobacco, including photos, comprehensive descriptions and, in most cases, short histories of the brands.

That’s a lot of information, and it doesn’t just materialize by itself. Smokingpipes.com employs nearly 40 people and continues to expand. A tremendous amount of activity takes place behind the scenes so that pipe enthusiasts can see those new pipes and other products every week. It takes photographers, researchers, writers, administrative staff, sales staff, customer service staff, purchasing staff, quality control staff, shipping staff, warehouse staff, data entry staff, estate pipe restoration staff, programmers, website techs … it takes a lot of people all doing their jobs quickly and efficiently. Add to all that a beautiful, well-stocked, brick-and-mortar store, Low Country Pipe and Cigar, which also needs to be staffed and stocked and run, and you can see why everyone connected to the company keeps very busy.

The Smokingpipes.com representatives that consumers hear most from are the writers who generate copy for the newsletters and the website. Blogs, pipe descriptions, histories, anecdotes, interviews—this is the information that permits buyers to feel comfortable in purchasing a pipe without actually holding it, and it needs to be done for 400–500 pipes a week, plus accessories and tobacco. Most of the writers have other responsibilities as well, so it’s amazing that so much information is provided. You may already have read tens of thousands of their words. They all have distinctive personalities and styles, and they each have fans of their work. Here are the writers of Smokingpipes.com:

Sykes Wilford
smoking3The business started in 2000 in Wilford’s college dorm room and has grown steadily since. “The big changes in presentation,” he says, “really started happening in 2003–2004. I started writing deeper commentaries that skirted the edges of art criticism; I thought that’s how pipes should be discussed. It became a mental process for a couple of years where I was writing increasingly more complex—though not necessarily better—pipe descriptions and learning all I could about art criticism so I could sound relatively knowledgeable.”

Art criticism seems like a fine approach for high-grade artisan pipes, but people like to buy inexpensive pipes as well. “It works fine with Tokutomi or Lars Ivarsson, but not so well with factory pipes, which also need descriptions. So I was experimenting with the subjective aspects of describing pipes. The measurements and details are objective—is it briar or meerschaum, it is this size—but the art is subjective. The description has always been an exercise in the writer’s response to a pipe. Especially with high grades, descriptions contextualize the pipe in time and place or in an art movement.”

Wilford says there is no rulebook for the writers of Smokingpipes.com. “Write what you want—as long as it’s literate and intelligent and thoughtful, just about anything goes.” Anything but mistakes—the staff tries to limit those. “We copy edit each other’s work. We make sure that everything is edited because otherwise horrible things can happen.”

One issue every writer needs a mastery of is identifying specifically who the audience is and how to talk with that audience. Some people visit Smokingpipes.com to buy an inexpensive pipe because they’re fairly new to smoking, though experienced pipe smokers also like an inexpensive factory pipe as well. Those who purchase artisan pipes in the $1,000-plus range tend to be (though aren’t always) more experienced smokers who know quite a lot about pipes in general. And there are plenty of enthusiasts who fall in the middle. Providing the right rhetorical tone and detail of information, appealing to everyone, can be challenging. “Coming up with the right balance is really tough,” says Wilford. “We have to be careful not to assume too much about what our audience is already familiar with, and we don’t want to bore readers with information they already have. We’ll do more introductory-level coverage with a pipemaker who is new to us. But the descriptions aren’t the only form of information on the website—those who want more than is in the descriptions or introductions can often find it elsewhere on the site. Many of the pipemakers on the website have received some sort of treatment like a photo essay or blog posts. Descriptions stand alone and work as a whole in relationship to a particular pipe. Elsewhere we might have an article on a pipemaker with links to blog posts and other pertinent information.”

The twice-a-week newsletter sent by Smokinpipes.com is something that many look forward to, as it provides both entertainment and information. “The newsletter is in two parts,” says Wilford. “The introduction, which rotates smoking2between writers, serves an editorial function, sort of a letter from the editor; it sets the tone, it entertains, and some people look forward to them. Sometimes we do an awesome job, sometimes not, but we do more than a hundred a year, so not every one is better than its predecessors. The second part is a list of the different pipe brands represented in the update, written by the people who have done the write-ups of the individual pipes for that brand, so they’re already familiar with them.

“Usually the introduction will elicit a handful of email responses, mostly positive, occasionally negative.” But Wilford has found that as a general style has been developed for the newsletter, somewhat less feedback has been forthcoming. “And less criticism as well, so you might say that our style has been shaped both internally and externally. We listen to what people like and don’t like and try to always move in a positive direction.”

R. “Bear” Graves
Though he is no longer a part of the Smokingpipes.com team, Graves was the first of the full-time writers and helped set the tone for the way pipe information and entertainment would be presented.

“Sykes himself was the first real describer of pipes for the company,” says Graves. “He employed me. I’m positive he lost sleep wondering what he’d done.”

Graves has a medical background and a long history as a pipe lover. He also has experience in high-pressure sales, which doesn’t work on pipe enthusiasts, so he had to figure out how to do what he’d been hired to do. “We were making it up as we went along. It took about a year to learn it was just a matter of having a conversation with a pipe buddy. That conversational tone is what pipe guys respond to. I learned to employ a little knowledge with a small amount of humor to engage the reader. After that, my reviews started to get positive comments. We’d hear from people saying they liked my stuff.”

Graves says that there was a period during which he was writing more than 1,000,000 words a year. “It was a hell of a grind sometimes because it was all mine—I was the only describer.” Those numbers are especially impressive when one learns that Graves types with only two fingers—that’s 500,000-plus words per finger per year. Those are two undeniably articulate forefingers.

There was more than just describing pipes; Graves contributed in all categories. “I did verbiage for the Low Country website, artisan profiles, interviews and a lot more. Once I had done enough that Sykes no longer felt he smoking1needed to supplement my work, I was responsible for more than 70 percent of the writing that went on the website.” He found a rhythm and some loose formulas to help the workflow. “I’d start out: bang, bang, bang, three adjectives—something like ‘flowing in form, elegant in spirit and precise in engineering.’ I’d use lots of parentheses, because I speak parenthetically. And I wrote endlessly. I’m the anti-Hemingway; I don’t know how to write a short sentence.”

Ted Swearingen
With his responsibilities as vice president and general manager, Swearingen writes somewhat less than he used to. “I do a few high-grade pipe descriptions and a handful of intros a month, or a blog post. I don’t do as much as I did. But when I first came here I was doing a lot more.” The newsletters and website are what made Swearingen pursue a job with Smokingpipes.com in the first place. “The pipe descriptions are what helped me decide. As a pipe smoker, I wanted to work here, and what I especially appreciated were the pipe descriptions.”

He wasn’t out of work when he applied, but he knew he wanted to pursue a career in the pipe industry. “I had a job in California, but I came here for an interview and we all got along. Now I’m here.”

Sykes Wilford says that Swearingen’s situation was unusual. “Here was this guy who was clearly the right kind of person for us—he loved pipes, had some skills and lots of enthusiasm. We didn’t have a specific opening, but we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to add someone like Ted to our staff.”

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Category: Feature Article, Spring 2013

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