Sykes Wilford, BA’02: Smoking the Competition



Sometimes pipe dreams do come true.

As a history major looking for part-time work, Sykes Wilford landed a job at the Elliston Place Smokeshop, just blocks from the Vanderbilt campus. Little did he know what the tea leaves—or tobacco leaves, in this case—portended.

He fell in love with the aesthetics of pipes (“They have personality, and there’s a timelessness and something personal about them”), which led him to launch in the summer after his sophomore year. It was the dawn of the Internet era, and technology promised to jolt an industry bound by its tweedy tradition.

Eighteen years later is among the world’s top pipe retailers, with $15 million in sales in 2016—and this at a time when smoking is at an all-time low in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the number of Americans who use tobacco dropped from 20.9 percent in 2005 to 15.1 percent in 2015.

The percentage of pipe smokers, however, has remained largely constant, according to informal research.

“People may still be interested in tobacco smoking, and pipes, if they do it infrequently and moderately, seem like a good alternative to cigarettes,” says CEO Wilford, whose Little River, South Carolina-based business sells artisanal and estate pipes with price tags ranging from $50 to $22,000 (the pricier version being a briar creation by renowned Danish pipe maker Lars Ivarsson).

“Culturally, we’re in a place where we’re reaching out for something more tangible and comforting than we were 25 years ago,” Wilford says. “That also helps with the broader appeal of pipes.”

Wilford’s own introduction to pipe smoking dates back to his days working on Elliston Place. He prefers to puff on straight or “slightly bent” briar pipes, but his tastes also veer to artisan pipes made in the United States, Denmark and Japan. He opts for “natural tobaccos,” or those without the cherry and mint overtones found in many drugstore tobaccos.

Because of his love of history, Wilford and his website are a trivia buff’s dream. The modern pipe, he notes, dates back to early 16th-century Mesoamerica.

“We tend to think of ourselves as more literary and intellectual than most retailers,” he says. “We bring both a historical perspective and our own critical perspective to pipes. No one was thinking that way about pipes before.”

Pipe smokers remain mostly a niche crowd—predominantly the domain of well-heeled, older males—but pipes increasingly are being enjoyed by the younger, beard-wearing millennial generation, says Wilford.

“There’s this sort of hipsterism associated with pipes that wasn’t there a few years ago,” he observes. “We’re happy with what little pop-culture exposure we get.”