I’ve been planning to do a post on pipes for some time, and finally have the perfect excuse: a short blog post on pipes I recently did for the New York Times style section.

The assignment gave me an excuse to visit the city’s few remaining tobacconists, of which the Art Deco-era Nat Sherman was a real delight.

My grandfather smoked a pipe all his life, and halfway through my college years I thought, “When I’m 40, I should smoke a pipe.” Impatient by nature, the next day I went out a bought a drug-store special, some kandy-koated tobacco, and promptly roasted my tongue.

But I stuck with it, and after dropping out of grad school (the only thing more absurd than a Cal State BA in English would’ve been a Cal State MA in French Literature), I worked in several Bay Area tobacconists while launching my writing career. Most of my time was spent at Drucquer & Sons in Berkeley, where I helped out while the owner recovered from a heart attack.

There I learned the gentle art of smoking, got my first high-end pipes, smoked some World War II-era Balkan Sobranie stored in an air-tight tin, and got sucked into the trading circle. Dunhills, a Charatan Supreme, pre-transition Barlings, straight grains by Ashton and Upshall — I had ‘em all. Where are they now? Who knows. Probably sold on eBay to buy clothes I no longer have.

My collection today is more modest, but the Dublin has remained my favorite shape since day one. Favorite blends include Presbyterian Mixture, GL Pease’s Abingdon, Ashton’s Artisan’s Blend, and Germain’s Royal Jersey.

Here are a few LIFE archive shots of a pipesmoking contest from 1959. If you can’t figure out how in the world pipesmokers compete against each other, it’s actually quite simple: Typically each contestant is given the same amount of tobacco and two matches, and the winner is whoever can keep his pipe lit the longest. The current world record is in the three-hour range.

For more vintage pipesmoking images, see this post by The Selvedge Yard. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD