My father is a pipe smoker. There is nothing unusual about this, as I bet that many of you reading this grew up in a family with a father who smoked a pipe, or an uncle, or a grandfather… you get the point. As this introduced me to the wonderful pastime of pipe smoking and later pipe making, it was not this by itself that really peaked my interest.
I have always enjoyed going to interesting shops. Whether I’m interested in the items they sell or not, I have been always drawn to the unique shop that sells everything from antiques to collectables to even hobby materials. What sometimes is more interesting that the shop itself is its proprietor. A familiar, comfortable environment does not a chain store usually make. Just such a shop existed in my hometown during my formative years; Bradley’s Pipe and Tobacco.
Going to Bradley’s with dad, in the late seventies/early eighties, was a real treat. His shop was always, well, sort of a mess. It was one of those places where the shopkeep knows exactly were everything is, but the customer’s may not have a clue. Yes, he had many containers full of his custom blends of tobacco (he truly mixed his own) and a shelf full of tins and pouches featuring the names of some of the finest blends of the day. He also had a glass case full of fine briars and meerschaums. But if you really wanted the good, interesting stuff, you had to ask. Forget trying to find it in the mounds of displays and various other loose items laying everywhere. His was a true pipe shop, so his few cigars were kept in a nice sized walk in humidor towards the back of the shop, and his selection of other tobacco goods were very sparse. Bradley smoked what he liked and liked what he sold. This was evident in his passion for the store and his merchandise, even to a young chap as I was then. The smell of the shop was terrific, a real typhoon to the senses; Latakia, Virginias, vanilla, cigars… constant nasal sensations when you walked in the door. And this carried home with us, because dad’s favorite blends were Bradley’s Blend and Vanilla Nut. Smoked of course in fine briars, such as Sasieni’s, purchased at Bradley’s. If dad taught me one thing, it was to be loyal to the person that takes care of you. Bradley and dad were friends, sort of. Bradley being a very introverted person didn’t exactly exude warmth sometimes, but nor was he rude. Just quiet and to himself. Dad, always having been involved in antiques, routinely traded Bradley rare old tobacco related tins and signs for store merchandise. Bradley decorated the store with these and other tobacco related antiques, so this place was truly a lot like home to me.
The years went by and I didn’t get by Bradley’s as often; after all, what teenager in his right mind would be caught hanging out with his dad, and in a pipe shop of all places? I had heard that Bradley’s health became bad (not due to pipe smoking by the way) and was having trouble keeping the place open. He tried selling magazines and other assorted gifts just to try and make ends meet (this was the heyday of the era of mall tobacco stores with tons of other worthless crap not even a near associated with pipes and men’s accessories). Finally, the store closed and that was it, and Dad resorted to Captain Black from the grocery store.
Now flash forward to the early 2000’s. I was about 30 years old and had recently discovered the incredible world of pipes and tobaccos. Up until this point in my life, I had no interest in smoking anything, so I surprised even myself when I slowly grew an interest in pipes. As with all Botherhood of the Briar, one thing lead to another and before I knew it I was a full blown collector and casual pipe smoker, as I remain today. On one of my many trips back home to visit the folks, with wife and son in tow, we wandered in a junk store. A true JUNK store. This place was not like the usual kind of place I am attracted to, but I have learned over the years of collecting a lot of different kinds of things, that sometimes you find the best stuff in the most unlikely of places. This theory again proved true, as I found out heading down an isle of junk. There was this booth, full of all kinds of tobacciana; pouches, estate pipes, pipe boxes, magazines… a true oasis in a wasteland of worthless discard. And the best part? There was ol’ Bradley with a big smile on his face. He didn’t recognize me from many years before, but he couldn’t mistake dad, as he still pretty much looked the same.
For about 2 years, it was again a treat to visit Bradley’s booth, even though his current accommodations were not “classy” as his previous. And of course by this point the Smoking Nazi’s were in full swing and even in this dump you could not smoke. After all, the second hand smoke might damage some of the merchandise…. I digress. Not only did I pick up some great items, such as an unsmoked Savenlli Autograph from the early eighties, but I got to be a kid again, going to visit Bradley’s with dad.
As history has a tendency to repeat itself, Bradley eventually disappeared again. His health was very poor at this point, and he could even not afford the meager booth rent at the junk store, even though he still had a few loyal customers who routinely made purchases to keep him going. I learned just recently that Bradley passed during the Holidays of 2009. Dad called to deliver the news, and as we discussed it he made a comment, “Bradley died and nobody knew it, it wasn’t even in the paper…. It’s like he didn’t exist”. I thought about it later, several times actually and have come to this conclusion. Bradley did exist and made a mark on society, as we all do when we do things for others and they take the gift and make it grow. I took my times at Bradley’s and let it slowly grow into a hobby and business that I am extremely proud of. Even though dad smoked a pipe, I probably would have never set foot into a pipe shop as an adult without the memories of Bradley’s. This has given me a pipe collecting hobby and pipe making business that I truly love, and that is a great gift indeed.
Colin Rigsby is a pipe maker and collector from Arlington, Texas. His work can be found at shurewoodbriarpipes.com. He grew up in Abilene, Texas, where the story above is set.