David P Ehrlich Pipe and Tobacco Shop, 1963
November 22, 1963 news of President Kennedy’s death flew wildly
across the airways of the three major television networks. Bold
print newspaper headlines shared but one topic. Fast along the full
length band of AM radio voices cracked the unimaginable, unconscionable
breaking bulletins with hopes of erred news and misinformed medical
reports. Today, similar events sound all too familiar, all too fluid
in daily occurrences. November 22, 1963 was my fourteenth birthday.
I’d obtained my required working card at the antiquated School
Department building located on Boston’s Beacon Hill and was
anxious to begin my first day of work as a stock boy at a downtown
pipe and tobacco shop called David P. Ehrlich’s. The address
was 207 Washington Street just across from the Old Statehouse.
Exiting the underground MBTA train station at the corners of Washington
and Summer Streets I made my way past Filene’s department
store, Raymond’s and the Jewelers Building, arriving in minutes
at the corner of Washington and School Streets where the Boston
Globe newspaper had recently open doors to the inner city trade.
A small crowd had gathered in front of each of the building’s
two front windows. I managed to wiggle myself close enough to read
a hand-lettered message taped to the first window: it read the president
had been shot. I remember reading another message but as memory
fails me I don’t know which of these windows the paper was
taped to. The message read the president was dead.
I was fourteen and knew no better. I thought ‘the president’
must have meant the head of the Globe newspaper or another large
company. My sympathy was more in line with my not arriving late
on my first day of work and so I continued on my way toward Ehrlich’s.
It would be easy for me to say "you had to be there"
rather than try to describe the stirring brew of a boy’s imagination,
Ehrlichs shop and the events of 1963 but my excuse would appear
too detached to you, myself and the memory of such a storied era.
Often, one of a kind events acquire importance only after time has
ripened ones appreciation of its uniqueness, all of which is why
I’m happy to pass on a small part of the story.
I’m sure of this. Ehrlich’s ran by its own clock, ripe
for the times, a safe haven made for your senses, obvious to me
even at fourteen. When walking through that famous glass front door
with its large smoking pipe handle there’d be no denying the
smell of raw cut tobacco or the aromatic comfort of reassuring you
that this is how a smoke shop should greet a visitor. Ehrlich’s
wasn’t the local corner cigarette store. It would be impossible
to ignore the beauty of the mahogany cabinetry framing your presence.
Ehrlich’s welcomed you inside in comfort, the way a return
to the old baseball sandlot might trigger your mind into believing
you still could hit the fastball after decades away from the game.
You were home.
The store had an orderly physical setup you don’t often see
today in business establishments. Once inside your attention was
drawn to the enormous glass case housing the museum quality meerschaum
collection. I don’t know what has happened to the dozens of
pieces but I can tell you I’m not being overly liberal with
description when I say it was truly a one of a kind collection.
There was as many, if not more, carved meerschaum artifacts as there
were pipes inside the case, each elaborately detailed to perfection.
Along that same left side ran the counters which housed cigars,
pouches and tins of tobacco, cigarettes and other accessories. Similar
items, mostly cigars were stored within the wall cabinetry whose
humidity was carefully checked and controlled on a weekly timeframe.
Several counters ran along the middle of the floor, mostly displaying
the less expensive pipes and pipe-carving kits that beckoned your
attention, challenging you to try your own hand at shaping a block
of briar into your very own pipe. The kits were always a popular
item, even more so at Christmas. The counter along the right displayed
the more expensive pipes, dozens in all the shapes imaginable. A
collection of amber jewelry was displayed in a counter at the rear
of the store. Above that was the office balcony which overlooked
the entire goings-on of the business below. I’ll say a bit
about the shipping room and basement storage vaults in my next article
but for now I’ll tell you about the front windows display.
The window on the left was creatively decorated with samples of
most everything for sale inside the shop. My boss and manager, Dave
Fiorello, presented a simple formula for sales success: He never
made the customer work to buy an Ehrlich’s product. Every
item in the window had its price clearly marked in numbers you didn’t
need a magnifying glass to read. Nothing was left to ponder. You
knew the cost of an item and all that remained was for you to step
inside, watch the salesman slip your cash into a monstrous ancient
manual register and exit happier for the experience. Or you might
have decided to stay a while to browse this mini smokers’
Smoking pipes of all styles were strategically placed in the window
display, alongside tins and plastic wrapped pouches of Ehrlich’s
special blends of tobacco, numbering close to thirty. Briar, Meerschaum,
Birds Eye and straight grain bowls were easy on the eye and comfortable
in the palms of your hands.
Wrapping ones palm around a warm bowl adds a sixth sense of secure
identity only pipe smokers can appreciate. I tried different models
of pipes during my stay at Ehrlichs, bulldog, short stem, even a
calabash which, for a boy of fourteen, didn’t quite fit my
self image, but I never settled on one particular design. I tried
a cob but quickly discovered it smoked too hot. My biggest challenge
was mastering the art of keeping a pipe lit. I didn’t fail
at trying to smoke a pipe, I simply knew it wasn’t for me.
Instead I opted to admire the pure natural beauty these wooden artifacts
projected. When I found myself admiring the pipes in the glass counter
I always settled upon the straight grain bowls as my favorites.
They were an expensive pipe, at least twenty-five dollars, and certainly
not a beginner’s choice.
Ehrlich’s blends ran the breadth of tongue lashing sensation.
The 207 blend was one of the mildest, a good beginners bowlful and
the one I tried and failed most at keeping lit. Although I’d
never smoked cigarettes I did hear others remark upon the 207 as
‘a bit stronger than cigarette tobacco.’ Often, my stubbornness
won out even when I’d repeatedly experienced the ‘agony
of defeat’. I sacrificed my taste buds as I ‘researched’
a sampling of the Old State House blend, always with a similar result:
the inability to taste my mothers sauce and macaroni at that night’s
dinner. Ouch, an incredible bite. As far as I was concerned whoever
smoked a bowlful of Old State House had a mission in life I was
incapable of understanding, or they were seasoned smokers born before
Ehrlichs also sold cigarettes, some wrapped in brown and black
paper, foreign, thin and as long as a number two pencil. Other than
the expense, often double their American cousins, they carried a
cloud of intrigue which seemed to define those who smoked them,
similar to when a dog’s face resembles its owner. Call them
European, Middle Eastern, perhaps Beatnik, but whatever the portrayal
there was an unmistakable air about anyone who smoked foreign cigarettes.
I was fourteen and for all I knew I might have ignorantly practiced
class and racial discrimination privately in my mind. I didn’t
know any better. Cigars, on the other hand, foreign or domestic,
were regarded as a notch above the paper wraps, in most cases quite
a few notches above.
Tampers, reamers, pipe cleaners, cigar tip cutters, ashtrays, humidors
and more paraphernalia complimented the pipes and tempted your smoking
desires. Dave certainly had a flare and honest appreciation for
the business he managed. Ehrlichs also sold beautiful amber jewelry,
necklaces, bracelets and earrings, some with insects locked within
the odd shapes of age-cured resin whose beauty I took for granted.
I’ll let you know about Karl’s workshop, later seated
by George Bushee, behind the other front window, along with the
business goings-on, the characters who kept the store running and
some of the interesting tasks Mr. Fiorello had the confidence to
allow me to try my talents at, all in part
Copyright© 2011 Michael Cangemi