On being a good listener : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

On being a good listener

Pipes by George knows what makes customers tick

by William C. Nelson

George Hoffman

George Hoffman

For 28 years George Hoffman has operated Pipes by George at the same Hillsborough Street location in Raleigh, N.C. Practically in the shadow of the bell tower at North Carolina State University (NCSU), Pipes by George benefits from a classic combination of reliable customer demographics. Most people who take up pipe smoking do so when young, often during college. NCSU’s 34,000-plus students provide a natural base of starter customers for a shop located only a few blocks from the main campus. Moreover, those students are supported by more than 7,000 faculty and staff members, all of whom can count on stable employment, giving Pipes by George a ready reserve of neighborhood clients seeking more expensive items than the typical college sophomore can afford. In the heart of Raleigh, the state capital, Pipes by George is also helped by being situated in the midst of a thriving business and political economy. All manner of clients are apt to visit, and 64-year-old Hoffman learned long ago to take a keen interest in the cultivation of relationships with his customers, knowing who they are and what they like. So he (very determinedly) does know them well, and they know him. Hoffman treats customers in his store like they were visiting in his living room, and he goes to considerable lengths to attentively maintain an intimate, friendly and familiar space for pipe and cigar enthusiasts to come and sit and sample tobaccos—and to just talk and unwind and get to know one another. In fact, what Hoffman has built in Pipes by George is more than a retail outlet. Every day his store is open, you’ll find him hosting what amounts to a friendly smoking party in his 900-square-foot establishment. It is no exaggeration to say that Hoffman binds a community. He figures he knows “hundreds” of regular customers on a first-name basis.
Hoffman started his pipe-selling business from the leanest of beginnings, 27 miles up the road, in the george2shadow of another storied campus, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “In 1975, I opened a little-bitty store on Franklin Street next-door to the famous Intimate Bookshop,” says Hoffman. “Back then, my place was called George’s Cheep Joint. Even then I lived in Raleigh, and since I didn’t have transportation, I actually had to hitchhike to Chapel Hill every day for those first two years I was in business.” He says that first little store only gave him an 8-by-10-foot space to work with. “I couldn’t get enough stock into such a tiny place to make a successful pipe business feasible,” he says. “So when I got the chance, I opened a more traditional shop around the corner on Columbia Street, and by the early 1980s I had changed my business name to Pipes by George.”
It was in 1986 that he finally found the storefront he really wanted, at his current Raleigh location, and so he was able at last to end the long daily commutes. Ever since then, six days a week, Pipes by George has opened its door at 1209 Hillsborough Street. The last time Pipes and tobaccos magazine visited, Hoffman was busy mopping his hardwood floor and dusting display cases. He has no employees to help him. “I had one young guy for a while, but he wound up going off to Korea to teach English to school kids,” he says. Hoffman’s wife has occasionally helped with the books, and his middle son (he has three grown sons) has sometimes helped, too. But for the most part, the store is Hoffman’s baby—10 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Saturdays. He’s always closed on Sundays, “So sometimes I get to go to the beach,” he says with a smile. Spending more than 44 hours a week in the store might seem confining to some people, but Hoffman relishes his life of regular rhythms. “There’s one thing I can say,” he announces with an air of relief and satisfaction about his working life. “When I get home each evening and set down the briefcase, I know I’m done for the day. Not everyone has that luxury.”
george4With so many years in the pipe business, Hoffman has seen a number of changes. “I’ve been seeing an uptick in the numbers of pipe smokers for, really, the last 10 years or so—ever since shortly after the craze in cigars in the mid ’90s,” he says. “So for more than 10 years, really, I’ve been noticing a click up as far as people moving toward the pipe, and smoking in a much better way. It’s like a once-a-day thing for a lot of them, to help them relax, so they can kick back and enjoy, the way that real smoking was supposed to be. That’s what pipe smoking is all about. People can get tired of picking up a cigarette and smoking it and feeling they have to smoke another one in 20 minutes, because the flavors and taste of tobacco aren’t there. With a pipe, you get the flavors and taste of the tobaccos. I think that helps a whole lot.”
Hoffman always impresses on people who are curious about pipe smoking that it is a totally different kind of smoking activity, one that involves a learning curve. “With pipes, I think it’s mainly that people kind of enjoy the ceremony of the thing. You know, there’s a ceremony in cigars, too. But what kind of ceremony is there in cigarettes? It’s the ceremony of the pipe that draws people in. It takes them a while to learn how to do it, but once they learn it, they kick back and relax in the evening, and that’s really what the pipe is designed to deliver. The other thing that you have going on is that with a pipe, you can smoke it one time a day or two times a day, and be done with it. Or you can smoke it three or four times a day. But the majority of people want to cut down the amount they smoke, and the pipe allows them to do that. A bowl might last an hour, but you can set down a pipe and then pick it up and relight it later, and it still tastes good. With a cigar, you can’t do that. With a cigarette, if you set it down in an ashtray george3and then come back to it, it’ll taste really foul.”
Hoffman doesn’t sell cigarettes, and he doesn’t carry hookahs, shisha or any of the new vapor products that are now gaining attention in the market. “The hookah is a good way to smoke, but you don’t really taste the tobacco,” he explains. “What you taste are the flavoring agents. And you have to have the time, and that’s a real commitment. Generally you do that in a more social sort of event, where there are two to four people smoking, and they go to a hookah bar.”

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Category: Feature Article, Other Stories, Spring 2015

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