by Christian Terry | photography by Eamon Queeney
As soon as you scuff your shoes on the hardwood floors of Pipes by George, you’re welcomed by the distinct aroma of lit cigars, a kaleidoscopic collection of pipes on the wall and the chipper voice of the shop’s owner, George Hoffman. Despite the curated feel, when Hoffman opened the Hillsborough Street shop in 1986, he didn’t have an exact idea of what he was going to sell. “I chose to sell pipes and cigars for two reasons: I knew a lot about tobacco, and I liked that cigar and pipe smokers tend not to abuse it—they take time to enjoy it,” he says.
For Hoffman, smoking a pipe is not just about consuming tobacco, it’s a ritual. “My shop isn’t a smoking lounge necessarily, but it feels good knowing people feel like they can come here, find something they like and just sit down and relax for a little while.” While new regulations are in place to prevent smoking inside, Hoffman’s store was grandfathered in with the older rules. “There’s hardly anywhere in Raleigh that you can smoke indoors, and I understand why. All I know is that I’m very grateful that people can still come and try my stuff right in the store without any hassle.”
The other thing about pipes and cigars, Hoffman notes, is that it can be a cost-effective way to enjoy smoking tobacco. “Once you buy a pipe, it can last years if you care for it. We have beginner pipes that are less than $30, and cigars in our humidor that are $3 a stick. Of course, we carry premium stuff, too: I have Ferndown pipes that are over $300 and Ashton cigars that are over $12 per smoke. I try to make it so people can find something they’ll love at whatever price point they’re most comfortable with.”
Hoffman says he believes part of his success lies in his decision to keep much of his shop the same as when he first opened. “I’m not a flashy person, so I don’t want that for my store. That’s why I’ve kept the same furniture and everything. I really think that my decor—and friendly personality, of course—make people feel welcome.” He’s always had competition, but Hoffman believes his unique setup is what customers like. “You can walk into a gas station and buy cigars, but you can’t have the same experience as when you come into my shop.”
While his shop and commitment to customer service have remained largely the same, Hoffman has noticed that his clientele has evolved over the years. “It used to be that I mostly sold to older people, you know, 50 years old and up. Now, people between 18 and 30 make up almost 30 percent of my business. I think that’s because young people still want to smoke, but not too much—I think they’ve found that pipes and cigars are the best way of doing that.” Hoffman laughs and admits he wishes they’d buy more sometimes, but he’s a fan of how well his younger customers manage their smoking habits. “If they want to only smoke occasionally, I think that’s a great plan for both their health and wallets.”
In recent years, Hoffman has seen significant changes to what is being smoked—but not here. Even as e-cigarettes and vaping have become popular, Hoffman says that he’s deliberately stayed out of that market, continuing to sell his classic lineup of pipes and cigars. “I like selling pipes and cigars because yes, they’re timeless, but they’re also working pieces of art. Every pipe, every cigar is different, and I like selling something that I can clearly see the craftsmanship in. I’ve even been so inspired before that I’ve made a few of my own pipes,” he says. And yes, they’re also for sale.
Hoffman credits his neighboring businesses for keeping customers coming to their little corner of Hillsborough Street. “The shops around me are the same way: Cycle Logic helps people with their bikes, the Green Monkey is just a great little neighborhood bar,” he says. “We’re all just friendly shops that do good work, I think that speaks to people.” Despite the growth and change on blocks nearby, Hoffman says he plans to stay put. “So long as I keep up what I’ve been doing, customers will keep coming, and I’ll happily stay right here on Hillsborough Street.”