Lewis Pipe & Tobacco • 825 Nicollet Mall Suite #165 • Minneapolis Mn 55402 • Tel 612.332.9129
New Covid Hours
11am-4pm Mon-Friday • Closed Sat-Sun

The Lewis family has owned Lewis Pipe & Tobacco since 1969. I started working here in 1972 when I was just 20 years old. Over the past 50 years, I've always tried to carry the best quality merchandise available.

In the 1980's I studied with some of the finest pipe makers in Italy and England and I am known nationally for my pipe making. I am also the authorized national repairman for many of the high quality pipe brands imported into the US including Ser Jacopo, Radice, Ashton, James Upshall and many more.

We're not the new kid on the block, just the older one always trying to get better

Assorted Newspaper Articles

Bowl game champ
January 3, 2011 // UPDATED 9:24 am - January 3, 2011
By: Gregory J. Scott

Tobacconist Rich Lewis gets tapped to make The North American Society of Pipe Collectors’ 2011 Pipe of the Year

It looks like a narrow roadway spiraling up a steep, craggy mountain peak. Meticulously chiseled with small hand bits, the ridges corkscrew around a rusticated bowl, giving it the tiered shape of a pinecone. Or, if you will, of a certain scaly Texas mammal.

It’s known as the Armadillo finish, and it is the specialty of Downtown’s master pipe maker Rich Lewis. Few people can pull it off, which is one huge reason Lewis was selected by the North American Society of Pipe Collectors (NASPC) to make its 2011 Pipe of the Year, a big-time honor bestowed once a year by one of the premier pipe-collecting organizations in the country.

Essentially the big fish in the rarefied pipe-collecting world, the NASPC boasts more than 11,000 members. Its annual collectors show in Columbus, Ohio, is one of the industry’s biggest drawing events, and aficionados regard the NASPC newsletter as one of the foremost authorities on the pipe-making craft. Since 1998, the group has selected one craftsperson each year to execute a limited edition pipe, which is then offered for sale exclusively to NASPC members.

“We definitely know who the good people are,” says President John Tolle. “And Rich’s reputation is very, very high. He’s as good as you can get.”

Downtowners know Lewis as the mutton-chopped proprietor of Lewis Pipe and Tobacco, a den of retro manliness located on the first floor of the Medical Arts Building at 825 Nicollet Mall. That, or they might recognize him as the lead singer of the Rich Lewis Band, an acoustic R&B act that plays regularly around town. Either role places him high in the running as one of the coolest cats in the city.

His shop is part smoking museum, part tobacco emporium, with displays of historic cigarette lighters and classic pipe design sharing prominence with an endless library of tobacco varieties. Just before the holidays, business is brisk. In a single hour, Lewis supplies a guy in a Fedora with a box of stick matches (no charge, of course), sells a well-heeled woman a pack of luxury Dunhills, and helps out a Christmas shopper on a wild goose hunt for something her father-in-law calls “Clint Eastwood cigars.”
“This is what you want,” says Lewis, grabbing a box of Ram Rods from a glass case. Inside, pairs of moist cigars, deep brown and wrinkled like ropes of jerky, are packaged together, two for $6. They’re the exact cigars that Eastwood chomped on in all of those spaghetti western movies.

“Can you smell those?” he asks the shopper. “They have real bourbon in them. That’s why I have them behind glass.”
But the real action happens in the workshop, behind a glass window that looks into the shop. Here, Lewis works his lathe and hand bits, laboring these past few months on more than 50 or so Pipes of the Year, each bearing his signature Armadillo bowl. The bowls are carved from blocks of briar, a ground-level burl from something called the heath tree, a shrub that grows in the Mediterranean.

The NASPC will accept orders through Jan. 14. Each costs $295. Pipes are reserved for members, but with annual dues at only $17, Tolle says it’s pretty reasonable to join just for the chance to buy the pipe.
Lewis has been running the shop for 32 years, ever since his father’s death put him in charge of the business when he was only 20. He’s survived smoking bans and health campaigns, emphasizing quality and special-occasion tobacco over mass-produced smokes. There isn’t a single Camel Light in the whole place. And Lewis himself never touches cigarettes — it’s bad for his singing career, he says. Pipes are way cooler, anyway.

“The last year, it’s definitely been an increase in 20-somethings smoking pipes,” he observes.
The last two years, he’s participated in the now-annual Mad Men party at Northeast’s Jax Café, selling cigars on the supper club’s patio.

“I had a lot of these kids say, ‘Man, it must’ve been really nice to be able to smoke at your desk,’” he says. “And it just kinda hit me: These kids are under so many more restrictions than I ever was when I was growing up. It’s so different now. And there’s a bit of that rebellious edge to it.

“But the baby boomers are picking it up too,” he says. “I think they’ve finally admitted that in reality they’ve turned into their fathers. You look in the mirror long enough, you start to see it.”

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Day in, Day out (Pipe Dreams Life after the death of smoking)

by Jeremy Stratton, The Rake - December 2006

Pipe smokers like to claim they live longer than nonsmokers. More than four decades after the fact, they'll still cite a 1964 Surgeon General's report on smoking, which stated: "Death rates for pipe smokers are little if at all higher than for non-smokers"

That report and others that followed warned of negative health effects for practitioners, including oral and lung cancers, but there's a state of mind, calm and objective judgment in all human affairs, according to pipe smoker Albert Einstein that enthusiasts claim the habit enhances.

"Pipe smokers are just more relaxed people," said Rich Lewis, the owner of Lewis Pipe and Tobacco. "Especially compared to cigarette smokers.

Despite lean times, Lewis himself, a fifty-four-year-old pipe maker and tobacconist, definitely fits that description. Adorning the walls of his tiny shop, located on the street level of the historic Rand Tower in downtown Minneapolis, is an assortment of antique pipes. Tiny nude figures and stags heads are carved atop pearly meerschaum bowls amidst stranger contraptions made of metal and briar, the hard, ball-shaped Mediterranean burl from which most pipes are made. Cases hold the cigars, pipes, and tobacco that make up most of Lewis' sales stock, along with some imported and domestic cigarettes.

The current seventy-percent wholesale tax on non-cigarette tobacco products has hurt business, as have the smoking bans that eliminated many cigar customers and downtown corporate accounts. Since laying off a longtime employee this past spring, Lewis has been running a one-man operation. Yet he seems to take all the glum news in stride, just as he did the chaos of relocating from Nicollet Mall last summer. This despite the fact that for five months, while his workshop was in shambles and he waited out construction next door, Lewis was unable to make a single pipe, his true love and talent.

Lewis hopes the new workshop, visible from the Rand Tower lobby (UPDATE recently moved to 825 Nicollet Mall inside the Medical Arts Building), will interest passersby in his arcane craft. He also agreed that the Rand is a good fit for his business. The building's Art Deco design evokes an era when tobacco was as ubiquitous as the fedora, another anachronism in the twenty-first century. Calling his business "kind of a dinosaur in that sense," Lewis said he'd hate to go the way of the haberdasher.

Lewis has run the shop since 1972, when his father passed away. (His mother worked with him until 2001.) Nearly thirty-five years later, he is the authorized U.S. repairman for many of the world's top pipe makers, and some believe he deserves a place among their ranks.

"When I tell you that Rich Lewis is the best pipe maker in the world, I am not blowing smoke," quipped Tony Soderman, president of the locally based Great Northern Pipe Club and a pipe collector for forty-two years. "I have heard two of the world's foremost pipe makers say the same thing," Soderman added. One of them, Giancarlo Guidi, tutored the previously self-taught Lewis in 1986 and 1989 at Guidi's Ser Jacopo factory in Pesaro, Italy (just above the calf on the Adriatic coast).

These days, the number of master pipe makers is dwindling, Lewis said. After World War II, European factories brought in train cars full of briar to craft hundreds of thousands of pipes. Now, those companies are gone or have whittled their ranks of craftsmen to a handful. Even the gathering of briar, which is done by hand, is a dying art relegated to the older generations.

Lewis says he's not in danger of going out of business but admits it's a struggle to be the only employee. In addition to tending the store six days a week, he fronts the Rich Lewis Band at night, playing covers and Lewis originals, New Orleans-style R&B and boozy, bluesy rock 'n' roll, as an acoustic trio at Erte Restaurant in Northeast Minneapolis or with a full band and horns at Neumann's in North St. Paul.

What keeps Lewis Tobacco going is a core of regular customers, both in-store and online, who buy cigars, pipes, tobacco, and related accessories. Les Pettit has been a Lewis patron for twenty years. "It's the only place I can find this particular brand of weed," he said. Pettit smokes Upshall estate (a fancy name for used) pipes, which Lewis buys and sells. The shop owner even makes custom mouthpieces to fit Pettit's teeth. "I chew a pipe a lot," Pettit said as he stepped behind the counter to weigh out his tobacco.

Neither man smokes cigarettes, an experience they differentiate from the fine feel of a burning briar bowl. Both spoke calmly, if not quite objectively, about the smoking ban and the tabooing of tobacco. Pettit referred to pipe smoking as a dying art, and Lewis admitted doubt about future demand.

"Will the boomers pick it up as they get a little bit older?" Lewis wondered. "I don't know." Despite that professed uncertainty, the question didn't seem to raise his blood pressure much.