Monday, January 30, 2012

Play Those Briar Blues

What makes a great business man? Knowledge, resources, experience? Of course, these are all exceedingly important for providing excellent service. To take the step step from good to great, however, you need a little something extra. Mike Glukler has that something and I knew it from the moment I first spoke with him.

He takes an intense interest in your passions, making it his mission to help you achieve your pipe collecting goal, be it finding your first good pipe or completing an incredibly rare and complex collection. More than anything, he is a genuine and disarmingly kind man.

One of the best examples of the type of business man he is, in my mind, is that he starts almost every single e-mail update with something along the lines of, "Good evening. Please excuse this intrusion into your busy weekend", despite the fact that his pipe updates are one of the highlights of my weekend!

Recently, Mike took the time out of his busy schedule to answer a few of my questions.

Ethan Brandt: When did you smoke your first pipe? What made you start? Can you describe that experience?

Michael GluklerMany years ago. I was 14 and began with cigarettes. My parents, being of solid European stock, said no to cigarettes, and they bought me a pipe. A straight burgundy pear shaped Yello Bowl. I was given a package of Borkum Riff. I filled the pipe, smoked it to near the bottom. My tongue was raw. I emptied the bowl and the yellow tobacco chamber liner fell out. I did not touch a pipe again until I was 18 years old!

EB: How did you first get into the pipe business?

MGI guess it sort of began in the early 80s. I started to enjoy a pipe, seriously, and ended up working part time in a few of the local pipe shops. In 91, the last real “pipe shop” in this area closed and shortly
after I went back to cigarettes. A few years later a friend came over ( a pipe smoker ) with a tin of
McClelland’s tobacco and suggested I bring out an old pipe and have a bowl. From then I switched
back to a pipe. The more I returned back the more I realized that my income was not sufficient for
my “needs” in pipes and tobaccos. In 1995 I began to dabble a bit in selling pipes for friends on E-Bay.
In 1996 I decided to take it to the next level. Built a web site. Listened to a lot of others in the business
on what to do and what not to do, and the business has grown.

EB: What do you look for when deciding what you will sell on your website?

MGIn estate pipes, I have no criteria. It is what my clients send. I will not sell pipes that have been “abused and resurrected “. 

In new pipes I am open to working with most carvers or factories. I do not go out of my way to bring in new pipes though. There are a few that I currently sell, such as Castello. I have long wanted to become an authorized Castello dealer and this year we made it happen.

(A Castello 55 acquired with help from Mike Glukler)

Briar Blues has also dealt with Le Nuvole, Radice, Peter Heeschen and a few others. We try and be a
little selective and not try and sell the same lines or as many lines as others. It is not that we couldn’t,
but Briar Blues is not like other retailers. This is not my income and as such, every sale that we do in
new pipes takes away from someone else that may be earning their living on pipe sales.

What we do prefer is working with lesser known carvers or new carvers looking for an avenue to show
their pipes and get a start. Then once they get a solid foundation of clients they can find other retailers
or sell directly from their own site.

EB: What do you feel sets your business apart from others? Give me your sales pitch!

MG: That is a loaded question.   

EB: Maybe just a little bit (evil smile).

MG:That is a loaded question. I suppose the biggest difference is the way the estate pipes are priced. I do
not set the prices, unless specifically asked to do so by a client. The majority of pipes are priced by the
clients themselves. That may sound odd, but I am pretty fortunate to have a client base that knows
allot about pipes and most have an excellent grasp of the pipe market. They know what a pipe should sell for and many track what they paid for any given pipe.

Briar Blues offers sales through E-Bay or a web site. Each pre smoked pipe gets gently cleaned and
polished and presented on the site. We do not take pipes and flip them on E-Bay as they arrive in the
condition they arrive in, nor do we resurrect / refinish / repair / or alter pipes. We do not sand and re
coat tobacco chambers. What comes in goes out in “ready to enjoy” condition.

Most of our clients have become friends over time and with many we work closely to locate specific
pipes for their collections, as you well know. Or need I say … Castello shape 55? If we find a pipe that
may interest a client, that happens to be on another retailers site, we will contact our client and point
out the pipe.

(Another Castello 55 acquired thanks to Mike)

EB: Thanks for that little mention about my Castello 55 hunt. And thanks for all the help! Sorry, I interrupted you.

MG: We will also advise clients on their pipe sales avenues. Recently a client asked us to sell the balance
of his items on E-Bay. I suggested , that if he’s going to pay me my normal fee, he’d be far better off
sending the pipes to a different seller that will charge him the same fee and garner him a better return.
So we sent the pipes to Rodrigo Garza of treasurepipes ( on E-Bay ) and the pipes sold very well.

As we get to know our clients tastes we may also steer them away from pipes they are interested in
that may not best suit their needs / wants. Last week, I would not accept an order from a fellow for
a couple of pipes that would have sold for near $3000.00. He is new to collecting pipes and the two
he asked about are more “art” pieces as opposed to real smoking pipes. Sure I’d love the sale, but I’d
rather have the fellow buy from Briar Blues for a long time and be his go to retailer, as opposed to a one
hit purchase and not return.

We are also able to work with buyers in China in Mandarin, Cantonese and Hubei dialects. Either
spoken or written. No, not me ….  (Mike stops here and laughs in a self-deprecating fashion) 

I have only a very basic working ability in Cantonese, but Xia ( my cohort in crime ) is more than able to communicate with our Chinese clients. For these buyers, we can accept Pay Pal or direct bank deposit to a bank in China.

Finally, I’d say that our goal is what really sets us apart. 

EB: Which is?

MGOur goal is to put more money back into the hands of collectors, so they in turn will use the money to purchase more pipes and tobacco.

EB: Not a bad goal at all! So, you've been working in the pipe business for a while: what pipe makers continue to amaze you?

MG: There are so many extremely skilled pipe carvers today.  The ones that amaze me most are not their skill set, but their personalities.   The carvers that “amaze” me are the ones I’d like to break bread with. 

(Photo courtesy of Moyan Brenn)

The ones with that twinkle in their eyes that show their minds are always working.  The ones with the quick wit and big smiles.  The ones that are serious about what they offer, but also understand in the scheme of things pipes are only a small part of the world.   And the ones that go out of their way to do what is right and not always for their own benefit.

EB: With what pipe makers would you say you have the best relationship and why?

MG: I have never really thought about this question at all.   I think I have decent relationships with most carvers.   None I can think of that I am at odds with.   I am sure there are a few that would prefer I keep some of my opinions to myself, such as tobacco chamber coatings…. Yes, I know I’m flogging a dead horse. (Loud laugh)  But all in all I try and get along with everyone, as best I can. 

EB: You mentioned a little disagreement about tobacco chamber coatings. What is your opinion on this?

MG: I will try and answer this as diplomatically as possible. Personally, I do not like tobacco chamber coatings. I will not add pipes to my collection that have a chamber coating. Why, some might ask, and I’ll tell you. I suppose I may be a little “sensitive” to the “flavors” that some coatings have. I will readily admit that the majority of pipe buyers do not notice any flavors in the coatings. I however can, and as such, avoid coatings with a vengeance.

There are a few carvers that use recipes, which to my taste buds, are acceptable as they are flavor neutral. What I mean by “flavor neutral” is that the chamber coatings to do alter the taste of tobacco, do not mute the flavor or tobacco, and offer no bitter taste when smoking. These carvers use recipes which contain natural edible ingredients, and may easily be removed with a damp cloth.

(Futurama's Neutral President. "I have no strong feelings whatsoever!")

I understand why many carvers use chamber coatings. One school of thinking is that a coated tobacco chamber offers a pipe that looks more finished. I guess I can accept that, but at the same time then must ask, that if a coated chamber looks better or more finely finished, does that mean that the carvers that do not coat the chambers are offering pipes that look less finely finished? If so, then we’re putting some pretty well known, highly thought of carvers on a list that says …… you pipes do not look well finished. I am not saying either is correct, I am just offering the reasons.

Another group believes that a chamber coating offers a protective layer,which may help prevent a burn out. My belief is that unless the carver is using asbestos, the coating offers no protection and may just do the opposite. The only two pipes that I have ever had burn out on me both had chamber coatings and both burned out within the first two bowls. Both burned out through the sides. I am sure that in the wall of the bowl was a small ( or maybe large ) non visible piece of sand that once heated, expanded and created the burn out. A coating may have retarded the process for a few bowls, but the end for each pipe would have been the same. Maybe if the chambers had not been coated the sand spots might have been able to expand inwards and thus not burn out at all. Of course that is speculation on my part. Above this I am sorry, but no amount of chamber coating can protect any pipe from the aggressive use of a torch lighter.

Finally there are those that believe a chamber coating aids in the break in process. I would bet that for some pipe-enjoyers this is true. Not for me, however. I prefer the virgin chamber to be broken in with only the  tobaccos I choose to enjoy. On new pipes I tend to be quite careful. I puff more gently and try not to heat up the chamber too much. Let the smoldering tobacco do the work, so to speak. I also do not mind the slightly woody taste at the end of a virgin tobacco chamber. Some people cannot stand this taste, and I understand that, and for those folks, I strongly suggest they stick with pre-coated chambers.

The issue really boils down to personal preference and getting the maximum enjoyment out of your pipes. I know what works best for me and that is the path I have chosen to follow.

I know that some buyers see the coating chamber issue differently. Some believe that carvers use a chamber coating are trying to hide flaws. This is an issue of honesty and integrity.

Let’s look at this seriously. Any carver foolish enough to use a chamber coating to mask flaws will find their reputation sullied quite quickly. Or at minimum the way the buying public views their offered items will drop in stature and thus command less than acceptable prices. Of paramount importance to carvers is their reputation. It is their names stamped on the pipes. Each and every pipe that leaves their shop carries with it, their guarantee of them doing the best possible with each piece.

The hidden / hiding flaws issue is just like the fills issue. Some carvers and factories fill bowls. Some do not. Those that say they do not, and the reverse has occurred have found their market diminish quickly. The same would hold true for any carver knowingly using a chamber coating to mask flaws.

EB: That is quite an answer! How about a question that shouldn't stir up as much controversy: What type of pipe/tobacco do you smoke for your own pleasure?

MG: If you were to look in my cellar you’d find mainly Virginia’s or Virginia’s with Perique or Orientals, with only small amounts of Latakia.   Until recently I pretty much stayed to only a few blends and brands, but due to a recent gift I am now exploring another line, which I had avoided due to my own lack of research. 

EB: What is your go-to pipe?

MG: I collect one brand mainly and that is Castello.   Being in the business most people think I have a large collection of pipes, however currently I have under ten pipes: six Castellos, two Le Nuvoles, and a Stephen Downie.  I can say that I can choose any one of the 9 and have an excellent smoke.   So really I have nine “go to” pipes.

EB: Who is your favorite author?

MG: There are two that when I have time to read, which I rarely do, they would be Brian Jacques and Regis McCafferty.   If and when I do get any “free time” you will find me plugged into an amplifier with a guitar in hand. 

EB: What is your favorite book, when you're not rocking out on your guitar?

MG: I have two favorite books.  Shibumi by Trevanian and Rakkety Tam by Brian Jacques.   Neither are heavy reading and some may even say they are light reading to the extreme.   I read to let my mind wander / relax.   My little blonde brain does enough thinking on work days. 

(Fair use of Rakkety Tam cover, the 17th book in the Redwall series)

EB: Mike, thank you so much for your time and all that you've done for the pipe world...and my collection personally! 

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