Where There’s Smoke...

DeathCrimePublic EmployeesCrime, Law and JusticeGovernmentGeorge Burns

Ed Kolpin was a tough act to follow. He lived to 97, smoked almost every day, once skinny-dipped in the reflecting pool at the Taj Mahal and sipped Cuban rum with Errol Flynn. But for Jeanette Kolpin, his cherubic, mild-mannered daughter-in-law, filling his shoes at the Tinder Box—the smoke shop Ed morphed out of his father’s Santa Monica pharmacy in 1928—since his death in 2007 is about keeping the legacy alive.

Jeanette is the widow of Ed’s son, Ed Kolpin Jr., and when her husband passed away in 1995, it was soon clear she’d be the one to run the business. “He knew I’d try to at least do the best I could do to keep the store open. Others would’ve just sold the place,” she says. The current store, a cottage-style building on Wilshire, has been selling its wares since 1947.

Kolpin Senior’s cult of personality is no secret. Marilyn Monroe, who rarely smoked, used to enjoy dropping by to hang out with the good ol’ boys. Though she saw Kolpin as a fatherly type, he said she once flashed him, which for a guy who was pumping iron at Muscle Beach before there were tourists and jetting off to Spain for a glimpse of Ava Gardner, was on par with his mystique and zest for living.

George Burns and Bing Crosby were regulars—the latter even had Mr. Kolpin fashion 16 handmade pipes. Robert Downey Jr. dropped in the day Iron Man opened. But the Tinder Box is more than a repository of Hollywood lore. It’s a sanctuary for smokers in a city that doesn’t want them. And since Ed Senior passed away, Jeanette has been charged with the conflicted task of helming one of California’s oldest tobacco shops against the headwinds of irony. It is even illegal to smoke 20 feet from the store entrance itself.

On Saturdays at 11 a.m., regulars meet to share a box of doughnuts and pass the day puffing and chatting about everything from the nation’s economic peril to the best types of briarwood pipes. The group runs the gamut of male Angelenos—neurologists and antiques dealers to construction workers and clerks. The vice that is their passion is also the force that binds them.

Saturday usuals also seek the dying breed of tobacco expertise that now rests with Jeanette and Leo Reyes, the store manager. Their wealth of knowledge, which grew from Ed Senior’s obsession with pipe and cigar smoking—and his disdain for the more quotidian cigarettes—is alive and kicking. The store’s pipe and tobacco blends are still hand-blended using an old cement mixer in a mysterious backhouse called the Warehouse of the Seven Sins. The formulas are kept in “the bible,” a book of custom blends that dates back to the 1950s. This creed, along with Kolpin Senior’s penchant for teaching college kids the art of blending, is not lost on Reyes, one of the kids Ed hired. He recites his teacher’s famous edict: “Do it my way—I’ve made all the mistakes.”

It was Reyes’ idea to bring in doughnuts for his best customers. “Ed was very business oriented,” he says. “Kind of like, ‘Get their money and go.’ But I realized these guys wanted to socialize.”

“He was a tough bird,” says Jeanette. In fact, when Ed’s black Cadillac would pull up in the driveway, someone would call out “redrum”—which is murder spelled backwards and a reference to Stephen King’s The Shining—and everyone would get to doing what they should’ve been doing before the boss walked in. But for Reyes, cultivating the community was worth the risk of getting Ed pissed off at his store’s softer side. “You have to have a haven where nobody is going to judge you.”

But the post–Ed Kolpin era hasn’t always been seamless. Leo has worked at the Tinder Box for 22 years and has been manager for the last 10. There was an awkwardness when Jeanette, who had focused on bookkeeping and packing, became his boss. “She is a giving person,” says Leo. “But she didn’t have the necessary guidance; she was thrust into this. Sometimes I’m a little too strong because of my experience, and we’ll clash, but overall, she is a beautiful human being.”

Again under the threat of higher tobacco taxes, Jeanette must somehow make good on her promise to her husband to keep the store open for another 10 years. Why? “For the guys. Ed always felt all the guys here were like family,” she says. Sometimes the guys still yell “redrum” as a joke when she pulls up, but nothing could be more ironic. While Ed Senior has his devotees, Jeanette is not far behind. “She’s a sweetheart,” says Saturday regular Kennedy Smith. “She’s kind, generous and treats all the guys the same.” With that kind of fan base, another 10 years may come easier than she thinks.

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