Tinder Box closes

When Santa Monica’s oldest tobacconist, Edward Kolpin Sr., died in April 2007, he had a wish. That his little shop on Wilshire Boulevard would continue to sell handcrafted pipes, high-end cigars and custom blended tobacco for ten more years.

When Kolpin’s daughter-in-law turns out the lights and locks the door one last time Monday, the nearly 90-year-old store will have fulfilled that promise.

“It will be hard,” Jeanette Kolpin said as she held back tears and pulled out some pamphlets from the Museum of Neon Art. “But we will be immortalized.”

On Friday, a construction crew used a crane to pull the old Tinder Box sign from its corner on Wilshire and Harvard St. It is now headed to Glendale where it will be repaired and restored and placed in the museum. The strip is perhaps a fitting resting place for what has been a symbol of Hollywood’s smoke-filled glamour since Ed began selling cigars to the stars in the 1920’s.

Over the years, loyal customers relished Ed’s stories of famous actresses and actors and their exploits. He claimed to have once been flashed by Marilyn Monroe herself and to have skinny dipped in the Taj Mahal. Icons from every generation have walked through the wooden doors and smelled the cedar inside the cigar room – from Clark Gable to Nicholas Cage to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The store opened in 1928. In 1973, the company began leasing its name and selling its product as a franchise, spreading the Tinder Box name all over the world. In 1977, Ed’s son told the New York Times that business began thriving after the Surgeon General’s warning that cigarette smoking was a health hazard. Suddenly, cigarette smokers turned to cigars and pipes to get their fix without inhaling and wean themselves off their daily pack.

“Our stores have never been affected by downturns in the economy,” Karl Kolpin reportedly told The Times. “People may lose their jobs, but they continue to smoke expensive cigars. The worse the Dow Jones becomes, the better our business.”

While there are still Tinder Box stores in about 18 states, the franchise has since been sold and five years ago Jeanette made the difficult decision to sell the property on Wilshire. She negotiated a special rate for the store for a five-year lease, which expired this month. The going rent in the neighborhood has since skyrocketed beyond what the store can afford.

“Things change and nothing lasts forever,” Jeanette said.

The Tinder Box doesn’t have a single employee who has worked there fewer than fifteen years. The shop’s manager, Leo Reyes, has been teaching customers about cigars and pipes since 1986. Once he gets going, he can rhapsodize about the craftsmanship behind hand-carving a pipe and the aroma of different tobaccos.

“As a kid, years ago, I remember someone smoking and it smelled like gingerbread,” Reyes said. “People have those kinds of memories of their uncle or their dad or grandfather smoking a pipe and they decide to give it a try. They get sentimental.”

“Everything has history so it becomes part of the ambiance of doing it.”

But while his customers have remained loyal, the base has not grown and trends in smoking have changed. The store never branched out to include new technology like e-cigarettes or vaporizers. Although they get a lot of calls requesting it, the store does not sell paraphernalia for smoking marijuana either.

“That wasn’t us. We wanted to stay pure in that sense,” Reyes said.

After they finish clearing out the store and complete the pile of paperwork that comes with ending a nearly century-old business, Reyes says he and Jeanette are looking into ways to continue the repair shop that fixes broken lighters, pipes and humidors.

“You know, the things that we do that other places don’t do anymore,” Reyes said.

Over the past few weeks, word spread that the shop was finally closing and customers began coming by to pick up mementos and say their farewells. Although their stock is already dwindling, Jeanette anticipates a busy day on Saturday when cigar and pipe smokers typically spend the afternoon inside the shop catching up with friends and enjoying their shared vice.

The stores late founder, Ed, smoked a pipe up until he turned 96 years old.

On Monday, the shop goes out like a light.