May 27, 2014 at 1:24 am

Tobacconist found his calling 40 years ago - and he's still selling smoke and stories

Jim Simon has a wife, three grown kids and a 364-day work schedule at Hill & Hill Tobacconists in Grosse Pointe Woods. (Neal Rubin / The Detroit News)

Jim Simon says pipe-smoking is coming back.

He’s said it before. You can read the clippings on the walls of the store. The same for cigar smoking; the wax and the wane of the corona and the panatela are preserved in yellowing articles on the walls and shelves.

Now younger people have discovered pipes, Simon says: 18-to-28-year-olds, not just in the hipster havens of Detroit, but across the land.

He stands ready to enlighten them, and if the embers of their interest turn to ash, he’ll be ready for whoever comes next — the same way he’s been for nearly 40 years.

There’s never been an actual Hill at Hill & Hill Tobacconists Ltd. in Grosse Pointe Woods. Simon, 61, just thought the name sounded British.

In truth, he was a blue-collar kid from the east side who bought his first pipe at 14 in a neighborhood drugstore.

The pipe was a corn cob — and naturally, he quickly upgraded. A friend took him downtown to the David Whitney Building, and he bought a nice briar for $9.95.

Then he blistered his buddy all the way home on the bus. Ten dollars? That was a whole week’s paper route money.

These days he owns 700 pipes, a reasonable number for someone who once had five tobacco shops.

The mall stores closed in the ’90s and the empire has been scaled back to the original on Mack Avenue.

There’s a genuine cigar store Indian out front next to a disingenuous sign that promises “Legal Cuban Cigars.”

Inside, there’s Simon, every day but Christmas.

He’s sitting in a tall, black chair, preparing to do battle with a crossword puzzle on his computer screen. Before that can commence, he explains why he’s open 364 days a year:

Because seven years ago, he stopped by on Thanksgiving morning to check the humidor, and he would up handling customers until 4:50 p.m. So it’s 364 days instead of 363.

Simon won’t just sell you a pipe, he says, he’ll teach you the proper way to pack and smoke it, to make the experience last.

He’ll tell stories that go the distance, too. The Cuban cigars?

Figure 10 minutes, minimum, but it’s a history lesson — how a fellow bought 47,000 pounds of pre-Castro tobacco, and Cubans on four-month visas in Ecuador wound up rolling it.

The tobacco ran out in the 1990s, but he’s proud to have been chosen to sell them, so the sign stays up.

He’s proud, too, to be a classic tobacco shop in a world of discount cigarette stores.

Most modern pipes, he’ll tell you, aren’t worth the matches to light them with. The briar hasn’t been properly aged, or worse yet, they’re made of some inferior wood in China.

He deals mostly in vintage pipes, $60 on up to $4,000, sending them as far as Australia without even a website.

The store itself is hopelessly cluttered, and some of the displays might not have been changed since President Gerald Ford sent a thank-you note for a gift of Simon’s custom-blend tobacco in 1975.

The humidor smells almost musty and holds only a few Dominican cigars manufactured especially for Hill & Hill.

But James Gandolfini loved them, he says, and so do that industrialist and this politician — and the rest of the shop smells like pipe smoke, which means it smells like your granddad’s living room and an era when a kid could go downtown and hang around tobacco shops until he knew more about pipes than the owners.

“All my blends,“ he says, “they never bite the tongue,“ and then another story leaves the starting gate, and the store and the tradition get a little bit older.
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