Smile Politely

The Pipe Mecca: Jon’s Pipe Shop and Cigar Lounge

I walk into Jon’s Pipe Shop to see how they like the new location. I tell one of the clerks, John, that I am interested in writing an article for a local cultural magazine, Smile Politely, and he points me to another guy. I introduce myself and next thing I know, Michael Ladue is taking me full tour around Jon’s Pipe Shop, no questions — just straight tour guide. Before I know it I am engrossed, knee deep, in an epic tale of both Jon’s origins and the intriguing character of Ladue himself.

He starts his tour taking me into the back area. They call this “The Lounge”. It costs an extra monthly membership fee to come to the lounge regularly, but you can also use it for a day for only $5.

Then he goes straight into the history of the place.

Michael Ladue: “This business is 53 years old. For 52 years we were on campus. And for those 52 years this was the door to our tobacco closet. You can see there”,   he says pointing, “Campus Businessman’s Association 1956. We didn’t want to get rid of that 100 year door, so we turned it into a, let’s call it a horizontal surface.”

Ladue: “And here’s our library. You can come in here to read War and Peace, the poetry of Milton or the annotated Sherlock stories. You can look up stuff old-school in the Oxford English Dictionary. These are the lockers some people have name tags. These are under humidification for people’s cigars.”

Ladue: And here’s the bathroom. We have one up front for the retail area, but here’s the back bathroom. The original 1930s Texaco gas station bathroom. You are standing in a Texaco bathroom.”

So as the tour comes to an end I begin my interview. The more I interviewed the more I started wanting to write a piece on Michael and his life story and forget about Jon’s, but we will save the life story of Michael for another article.

SP: You have been in the Champaign-Urbana area for 52 years?

Ladue: Yeah, when the 100th anniversary of the Business Association was celebrated we were one of two business that were the oldest businesses on campus. One was campus florist and the other was us.

SP: Yeah, I think campus florist is still over there.

Ladue: Yeah they haven’t banned flowers yet [laughs]. That business was never dependent on the parking either. We are a regional draw. They actually have formulas for this. A florist business is reliant on a geographical area a lot smaller than this. And when you’re on campus my God you’ve got a captive market for flowers! Whereas we draw from a several state region. We have customers that come from Lafayette, Indiana and down from the Chicago suburbs or up from southern Illinois and southern Indiana. We have a variety of things not found elsewhere.
This is the pipe Mecca. We are known all over the country. We are one of the best pipe shops in the United States. And by one of the best, I mean like one of five. And you need to have some type of parking to service that many people.

SP: That’s a pretty bold statement, you mind me asking what are the other shops in that top five list?

Ladue: Well lets see. There’s Chivon-Rees in Chicago; they are very, very old and are internationally known because they were pioneers in male order. They go back two or three generations, so they are very old. And then there’s the Owl Shop in Connecticut and what else… that’s only three well shit, I think that’s it.
The others have either gone whole hog cigar or out of business. You could have reasonable debates about which shop is the best. A pipe shop can be a cigar joint but a cigar joint can’t be a pipe shop. We were said to be in competition with another business in another part of town, but we never were. We served two different markets. We shared the cigar market, but for pipes this was really it. In downstate Illinois this is basically it.

And a full service pipe shop is pretty rare. There will be places that have some pipes but we have several hundred estate pipes. We get calls all over the United States.

(Sure enough, when I got home I googled “best pipe shops in the nation”. Jon’s Pipe Shop was the first to come up. )

SP: So when the university came out with the smoking policy, were you considered officially on campus?

Ladue: No, campus is the university property and nothing else counts. They want to mislead people into believing otherwise. We were never in campus though; we were in campus town.

SP: So what was the motivation to moving over here?

Ladue: Between construction and no parking, our business was so thoroughly disrupted. That, and the fact that we didn’t own the building we were in. At some point that thing is gonna come down. They are going to turn it into a taller building, it’s right next to that 14 story building by Sixth and Green.

As time went on, we lost the parking lot across the street so no one could come and visit us for a minute. They had to wander all over the neighborhood to find a place to park and then pay a meter and then walk 4 blocks to the shop, and that just wasn’t working for a lot of people. And of course we didn’t have a lot of room. And with fewer and fewer places available to people to smoke lawfully we needed more room. A lot of customers don’t smoke in their own homes, oddly. I can’t begin to relate to that but I understand that that is a thing.

SP: Has your customer base shifted at all since the move?

Ladue: Oh yeah, oh yeah.

SP: Probably a lot less students?

Ladue: Fewer students and more people with vehicles. People with cars and trucks. We get a hell of a lot of trucks. A lot of trades people and guys who like trucks come here, who couldn’t come to the old place.

SP: So is there anything you miss about the old one?

Ladue: I miss the students, I miss the walk in. It was very, very cozy. And it was possible for one guy to sit in one spot and do absolutely everything. Party, work, smoke, restore pipes, the register was about eight feet away. The stereo was within an arm’s reach on my left. I mean I could basically just stand in one spot and run the shop. Eat, drink, and be merry all at the same time. You could stand there and see every square inch of the shop out to the street.

SP: So it sounds like this move was more for the customers?

Ladue: Certainly wasn’t for me… [laughs]. It was so we could stay open for God’s sake. We were dying there. No parking at all construction interfering with everything. There’s no way we would have survived it. No way!

SP: So what do you like most about this new place?

Ladue: I like it back here a lot. A lot of times when my legs are too damn tired to propel me home, I stay for a while, hang out throw darts. The dartboard has been such a big hit, that the scoreboard has been worn all the way through and we have to get another one.

SP: Do you know why they chose this area to start up? The Chambana area?

Ladue: At one point there were five Jon’s pipe shops, it was a chain and they had them in university communities. One in Indiana, one in Clayton, Missouri, and couple more I don’t recall where they were. And this is the only one here today.

There is another one in Clayton, Missouri that had survived going wholesale tobacco. This business started out in downtown Missouria. All the woodwork you see in there, those cabinets, those are the original cabinets of the original cabinets from the original store dating back to before World War I.

A member of the St. Louis Browns baseball team started the business in 1907. His wife got hot with him runnin up and down the road all the time with women hangin on him and drinkin and clownin as professional athletes have been known to do. And ya, she threatened to dump in. So, “find another line of work” says she. And you know the lifetime of a professional athlete is not that long, your joints give out you start getting in pain. Younger guys can run faster and all that rot, so he figured it was a good time to get out of that and he opened up a pipe shop in St. Louis, The F and K Tobacco Company.

For many many years it operated that way and then they opened up in Clayton Missouri. And in Clayton they operated as a pipe shop for many years and the guy who ended up getting it, who’s had it for a quarter of a century now at least. He decided to go whole sale so he brought back the original name. And he has F and K Tobacco and he distributes various tobacco products nation wide. They also distribute a very high end line of pipes made by probably one of the best pipe makers in the world who lives in Denmark. He deals directly with Clayton Missouri as his national distributor in America. And they are sort of our sister store. So he’s our friend.

He usually comes the first week of May and hangs out with us for about three days on his way to the Chicago area pipe show, which is the biggest show of its kind in the United States. So he comes and does a nice little show here. In May, if he gets clearance from his doctors, and probably even if he doesn’t, we will have a show of his pipes. His pipes start at about $1400 and go up, so they are pretty expensive. But they are works of completely free hand art. And he is arguable the best pipe maker alive. Best in the world so he’s got to get paid. There are several who are at the very top game and then there’s the guys who teaches those several how to make pipes, that would be Hans Nielson. His trade name is Former.

SP: How long have you been with Jon’s pipe shop?

Ladue: Long time since the early 90s

SP: How did you get started in the pipe business?

Ladue: I don’t know, I was about three….

I noticed my grandfather was smoking pipes. And I was fond of my grandfather. My father didn’t stick around that long, but you know other men would come sniff around my mother and generally they all smoke pipe. Cause I don’t think mother would have had it any other way. And my uncle took up pipe smoking and I would mess around with them and they couldn’t keep me away from them. And so my grandfather set me down with a box of pipes and tools and said: “look if you are going to fool around with the pipes let me show you how to do something constructive.” He showed me how to clean them and assemble them and disassemble them remove carbon from the bowls and make them nice. Of course this was a plus for my grandfather because he was slovenly with them. He figured whenever it was time for me to visit he could have sweet smoking pipes again! So it was all good, everybody was happy with this arrangement and I remember he had this pipe made of this white stuff. It was actually very much like this one, except for his was slightly bent. This is called a bulldog.

My grandfathers favorite shape was the bulldog he had several straight ones like this, but he had a slightly bent one that had a genuine amber stem. It was made out of thinks expensive white mineral called meerschaum. Which is only found in a central square mile in Anatolia western turkey. So my grandfather had one meerschaum with an amber stem and I wanted to mess with it like I would mess with his cheesy medical bryers, so he talked to me about meerschaum. And my grandfather was a scholar, he knew German and the world for deform in German and said, “You are on toy to touch this. It is fragile and valuable and rare. And you would feel very badly if you broke this, but I would feel worse.” So I learned to have great respect for the meerschaum pipe, I loved the way it smelled cause meerschaum imparts a subtle sweetness to things smoked in it… I was raised in the culture of pipe smoking. A world without pipes is almost impossible for me to conceived. I can imagine not having pipes around, they are part of the furniture. And when my grandmother died and my uncle was in college sort of bachelor with my grandfather, roommates for a couple years.

There really were pipes everywhere being smoked. There I was, a little guy thinking man this is so cool, I can’t wait to have pipes of my own. We’d go traveling and we go to some place like Yellowstone or something and first thing I’d do, I would get out of the car and bolt for the souvenir place right? And I’d look for a corn cob pipe and a little sheaf knives.

So there’s a picture of me in Glacier National Park, three years old I’m standing there against the backdrop of the Rockies with a corn cob pipe in my chops!

SP: So did you find Jon’s when you were here?

Ladue: Yea that was the first thing I did in town, I went to the phone book and looked up tobacconists: and I saw Jon’s and I was like yea this is a good place.

SP: When Did you start working there?

Ladue: Much later, the owner of the shop was working as detective pretty much on call 24/7. His mother was in her 80s and she needed help and he says you already restore pipes, because in order to get good pipes, I would restore pipe a in exchange for good pipes, because you know I had champagne tastes and ripple money.  So I’d restore pipes to get pipes. And it was relaxing and fun and I got to smoke good. And Pat, the owner, says: “listen I need your help, why don’t you get on home other side of the counter you already restore the damn pipes and sell them for people, why don’t you just do it all the time. I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing too much at the time anyway so I say, alright but I have to be the manager, and this deal of restoring pipes for good pipes has to be part of the deal and he said done.

Related Articles