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Edward Kolpin Sr., 97; L.A.s oldest tobacco dealer

Edward Kolpin Sr., the tobacconist to the stars, liked to hold court with old Hollywood. Bing Crosby went into his Santa Monica shop for the artisan's handmade pipes. George Burns bought 99-cent cigars to smoke but $10 stogies to give to friends. Marilyn Monroe never bought anything but regularly stopped in to chat.

Kolpin, who smoked a cigar or pipe at least once a day, died Friday at his Santa Monica home, his family said. He had had a heart attack in January.

L.A.'s oldest tobacco dealer was 97.

"Every corner shop sold tobacco and everyone smoked cigars" when he got into the business, Kolpin told Los Angeles magazine last year.

When he converted the soda fountain in his father's drugstore into a smoking bar in 1927, Kolpin laid the foundation for the national chain of Tinder Box smoke shops. He had operated the original on Wilshire Boulevard since 1948.

During his Hollywood days, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a regular customer.

"Ed created an eclectic and wonderfully quirky place…. Ed nourished a sense of camaraderie, of family, among his customers," Schwarzenegger said in a statement. "The ancient cash register only added to the sense that in the Tinder Box, you were part of a time past."

As anti-smoking initiatives made it harder for smokers to light up in public, Kolpin insisted that pipes and cigars should not be considered as harmful as cigarettes.

"If I'd been smoking cigarettes instead of cigars all these years, I would've been dead by now," he told Los Angeles magazine, and chuckled. "Hell, I would've been dead 50 years ago."

Gary Blumenthal, president and chief executive of Tinder Box International, told The Times: "Even in his 80s, Ed could have passed for being in his 60s, and he attributed a lot of his good health to the joy and relaxation of smoking a pipe."

Although cigarette smokers have a higher risk of lung cancer because most inhale, the risks of cigar smoking increase with the frequency of smoking and depth of inhalation, according to the American Lung Assn.

The charismatic former pharmacist was known for mixing his custom-blended tobacco with tales of his celebrity clients who also included Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Jayne Mansfield.

Actor James Whitmore told The Times on Monday that Kolpin was "an artist who fashioned absolutely wonderful pipes for me out of briar. And he was a great guy who was constantly serving others."

Edward August Kolpin was born March 9, 1910, in Kenosha, Wis., and moved to Santa Monica when he was 12. His father opened Kolpin Drugs on Wilshire Boulevard at 15th Street.

With a father and six paternal uncles who were pharmacists, Kolpin was expected to join the family business. He earned a degree at USC and worked at the drugstore for 17 years but claimed he didn't like it.

"As a hobby, I used to analyze tobacco and sell it to pipe shops," he told the Santa Monica Daily Press last year. "In those days I was getting $21 a month as a pharmacist and $25 selling tobacco. So I opened up a little pipe shop in the drugstore."

Within a year, he was making more money than his father. Around 1930, he opened a stand-alone store called Ed's Pipe Shop on Santa Monica Boulevard next to what would become the Mayfair Theater.

"There was no television at the time, and so people were shopping in the streets until 11 or 12 at night. And the after-theater business was of course very good," Kolpin told Pipes and Tobacco magazine in 1996.

A 1947 divorce from his first wife — the mother of his two sons — left him nearly penniless, and he borrowed money to travel overseas. He began building a personal pipe collection that grew to more than 5,000 pieces, Kolpin told The Times in 1983.

Back home, he borrowed money to build a new smoke shop for $2,750 on family land on Wilshire Boulevard. Inspired by his European travels, he built it as an Old World-style cottage and named it the Tinder Box.

The first Tinder Box franchise opened in 1959 in Hawaii and was followed by a couple of dozen others, mainly in California. The expansion was helped by the surgeon general's report in the early 1960s that cigarettes could be harmful to one's health.

"Our business quadrupled because people switched to pipes principally to get off cigarettes," his son Karl Kolpin said.

By 1967, Edward Kolpin had turned the corporation over to his sons but kept the Wilshire store. Brothers Karl and Ed Jr. ran it for five years before selling Tinder Box International to a Canadian conglomerate. About 200 Tinder Box stores exist today.

"I was on my own again, which made me very happy," Kolpin said in the 1996 article. "Just me and my little shop."

Kolpin was divorced three times. In addition to his son, Karl, who owns Kolpin's Cigar Co. in Woodland Hills, he is survived by his girlfriend of 45 years, Louise Gardner, four grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.

Source: Los Angeles Times