by David Downs
San Francisco's boutique, glass pipe of the month club Pipes 2 the People goes national this week on bucking consumer demand for chillums, bubblers, and dazzling table pieces. So says the three-month-old company's 28-year-old co-founders and Mission district residents Jesse and Gabriel (last names withheld), both glass snobs who were amazed someone else hadn't already thought up the concept, which they claim is the world's first glass pipe of the month club.
“It turns out the only other type of pipe club is the old man pipe for people who smoke tobacco and stuff,” says Jesse. “We don't really take a stance on what you use it for.”
Indeed. Interstate drug paraphernalia trafficking got entertainer Tommy Chong sentenced to nine months in jail, and per their lawyer's advice the club is neutral on what customers actually do with their glassware.
“Our stance is these are basically art pipes. They're not for any sort of illicit use, and it says so in our terms and conditions,” Jesse says.
Whatever people use an ornate glass pipe for, aficionados nationwide clamor for a membership. Members pay $12.99 a month for a $15 to $80 retail piece. It solves the problem of dirty pipes, broken pipes, sketchy head shops, lack of sketchy head shops, and gift-giving, the owners have found; especially outside of liberal California.
“We thought California would be our biggest market, but we realized people outside of California have an even bigger demand.”
Jesse says he got the idea one evening after going out with friends, one of whom was a member of a 'sunglasses of the month' club.
“I break sunglasses like every six days. Girls take them. I was like, 'what else in my life is like that?' It was right up there in front of my face, literally.
“After I did the research, my first thought was, 'I can't believe there isn't one out there already.'”
The two bootstrapped the company in ninety days with a web coder and artist working for sweat equity. Jesse held down a day job and Gabriel collected unemployment. They incorporated, then launched April 20th with a key mention on daily email list Thrillist - which turns 18-34 year-old men onto new, local products and services like whiskey bars, and distressed denim. Jesse was a Thrillist fan and friend of the local Thrillist editor. The mention ignited membership rolls.
The business takes customers' $12.99 each month and sends them one of six types of glass from $15 travel pieces to $80, multi-chambered “hydronic” table pieces. The two insure customers never receive the same piece and get a rounded selection of types.
“We have the pipe genome project going on,” Jesse says. “It's more conscientious than a gumball machine, more like the genius shuffle on your iPod.”
Discrete packages come with cleaners, and a description card with a space on the back to name the piece. All glassware comes from within the U.S. and the club will start featuring key glass blowers on its site soon. They're also adding a gift plan, merchandise shop, and online store for non-subscribers.
“We're actually pretty swamped, to tell the truth,” Jesse says. “The margins are super-low, so there's not a lot of room for error on our part.”
Membership has often doubled in a single week with a media mention, and their retention rate is 100 percent, they say. Investors have offered the duo capital, but Jesse and Gabriel say they're enjoying building the company from its grass roots themselves. Beaten down by a recession that has mangled a generation's career strategy, Pipes 2 the People — whose motto is “Peace, Love and Pipes” offers an escape.
“When something hard happens, you got to work through it and around the corner something better happens,” says Gabe.
“We basically wanted to branch out and do something and be ourselves and be our own boss in an industry that's our own. We see in the next five, ten years it'll be just as big as all other major industries out there,” Jesse says.
Though P2tP is now national, they won't deliver to Iowa or Pennsylvania (where, coincidentally, actor Chong was convicted in one of the highest profile paraphernalia cases in history).