“The pipemaker industry is completely made up of outlaws and degenerates and if I was in a room filled with my peers I think everyone would agree.” Tito Bern of the Bern Gallery in Burlington doesn’t split hairs when describing his coworkers.
Outlaws and degenerates have made pipe making look sexy, but “rational business thought is really not their main concern.” Usually unbothered, some Vermont pipemakers are concerned about competition posed by rising imports. There are hidden downsides to impending legalization, and one of them is so-called “China glass.”
Sarah Coshow of Stash N’ Stowe confirmed that there is anxiety in the air, noting that “the glassblowers and the right shop owners” are worried about a tidal wave of imports from China and other places. The concern seems to be that if legalization passes, the state will flood with mass-manufactured pipes that resemble artisanal pieces but are sold below regular prices.
Bern says this poses a threat to young upstarts in particular: “If they’re making anything generic and competing with the import companies, they’re gonna have real reality checks really soon.”
To certain consumers, beautiful cheap pipes are better than gorgeous locally made pipes sold at a premium. But, beyond destabilizing the market that pipe makers have built over the past 20 – 30 years, imported pipes may not adhere to the same health standards that many small batch pipes do.
Bern cited an instance from years ago. “To get around certain laws, they would ship pipes in with no bowl hole in them, and then they would drill the hole here in the states and not wash them out, so you’d get glass dust in there and who knows what else.”
As artists, pipemakers don’t have much recourse to defend the value of their work against the forces of globalization. Shop owners, however, have a platform. For one, they have curatorial power: they decide whether to offer imported pieces or not.
And consumers, ever the gods in free-market fiascos like these, can decide whether to purchase a quality piece and support a local artist’s livelihood or to snag something of dubious quality from an unknown point of origin.
Coshow articulated her values around stocking Stash n Stowe. “I really try to sell something that I’m proud of, that people can come back to. I’d rather stay close to home, which is with Vermont artists. I look at my figures and I go wow I really helped support some families this year.”