Where Theres Smoke...
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 Boxthe smoke shop Ed morphed out of his fathers Santa Monica pharmacy in 1928since his death in 2007 is about keeping the legacy alive.
Jeanette is the widow of Eds son, Ed Kolpin Jr., and when her husband passed away in 1995, it was soon clear shed be the one to run the business. He knew Id try to at least do the best I could do to keep the store open. Others wouldve just sold the place, she says. The current store, a cottage-style building on Wilshire, has been selling its wares since 1947.
Kolpin Seniors 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 regularsthe 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. Its a sanctuary for smokers in a city that doesnt want them. And since Ed Senior passed away, Jeanette has been charged with the conflicted task of helming one of Californias 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 nations economic peril to the best types of briarwood pipes. The group runs the gamut of male Angelenosneurologists 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 Seniors obsession with pipe and cigar smokingand his disdain for the more quotidian cigarettesis alive and kicking. The stores 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 Seniors penchant for teaching college kids the art of blending, is not lost on Reyes, one of the kids Ed hired. He recites his teachers famous edict: Do it my wayIve 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 Eds black Cadillac would pull up in the driveway, someone would call out redrumwhich is murder spelled backwards and a reference to Stephen Kings The Shiningand everyone would get to doing what they shouldve been doing before the boss walked in. But for Reyes, cultivating the community was worth the risk of getting Ed pissed off at his stores softer side. You have to have a haven where nobody is going to judge you.
But the postEd Kolpin era hasnt 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 didnt have the necessary guidance; she was thrust into this. Sometimes Im a little too strong because of my experience, and well 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. Shes a sweetheart, says Saturday regular Kennedy Smith. Shes kind, generous and treats all the guys the same. With that kind of fan base, another 10 years may come easier than she thinks.