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A Smoker's Last Refuge

Cigar shops are among the few places that a cigar smoker can call home
Nov 28, 2007 | By David Savona
A Smoker's Last Refuge

From the October 2007 issue of Cigar Aficionado magazine.

It's 11 a.m. on a warm summer morning in Manhattan, and Billy Fakih is standing behind the counter at The Cigar Inn, a smoldering Rocky Patel Edge cigar in his left hand. The door opens and a customer holding a cup of coffee breezes in, heading straight for the walk-in humidor. • "How are you, Nick?" Billy says. The man nods, chooses a dark Camacho from the well-stocked selection and sits down in the shop's cigar lounge. Soon a big man named Lee, a former stockbroker with hopes of freelance writing, joins him, followed by a 30-something security guard from Queens, then a reed-thin surgeon in his 60s from neighboring Lenox Hill Hospital. Each man takes a seat, lights a cigar and talks about the subjects of the day as the sublime sounds of Johann Sebastian Bach play from the large-screen television.

It's a small space, all of four leather chairs and one couch, but for these customers it's a sanctuary. The number of bars in New York City that still allow cigar smoking can be counted on two hands, cigar-friendly restaurants are a thing of the past and the entire world seems to be conspiring against the cigar smoker. Inside this haven, however, they are free to enjoy their cigars in peace. The smoke police do not come here. There is no wrinkled nose and wave of an irritated hand at the first sight of a robusto waiting for the flame. They are home.

With smoking bans spreading across the United States like an irrepressible, choking weed, the cigar shop is becoming the last safe house available to the cigar smoker. Most of the states, cities and towns that have banned smoking still allow smoking inside cigar shops (Washington State is a noted exception) and savvy cigar store owners are responding by creating lounges inside their shops. Instead of merely being a place in which to purchase a cigar, many cigar shops today are now places for them to be consumed as well.

"The cigar store of the future incorporates a commodious lounge," says George Brightman, who manages J. Barbera Tobacconist in Garden City, Long Island, a 2,000-square-foot shop that is about one-third smoking lounge. Brightman, who once worked as director of business development for this magazine, has more than two decades of experience selling cigars.

"If you don't have capacity for your customers to relax and enjoy themselves, you're going to be at a disadvantage," says Brightman. "We're the last refuge of the dedicated cigar smoker. [Customers are] here among other like-minded individuals in an environment where they can be comfortable. You're not going to get disapproving stares and you're not going to be hassled by the smoke police."

In a recent poll on Cigaraficionado.com, three out of four readers said that their local shop had a smoking lounge, and 54 percent said they visited it at least several times a year. And in a survey of 50 leading tobacconists conducted this spring at the Tobacconist Association of America show, 66 percent said their store has a cigar lounge, and 90 percent said the lounge had experienced a recent increase in usage. Having a place to smoke a cigar is increasingly important.

An inviting cigar lounge has reinvigorated one of the oldest cigar shops in Connecticut, The Owl Shop in New Haven. Opened in 1934, the store is located a few steps from the Yale University campus. Pipes—guaranteed to make a college student look more intelligent—have been a mainstay at the shop for decades, but it was the new ownership of Glen Greenberg and the couple hundred thousand he put into renovations in the last year that have made the difference.

"Turning it over to a lounge here really injected a whole new life into the store," says Greenberg, a 40-year-old with a shaved head and hip style of dress. He bought The Owl Shop in 1998 with his father and another investor, acquired a liquor license and yearned to transform its small cigar lounge—which had a circa-1970s, Brady Bunch look—into something classier. Dad and the investor balked, so Greenberg bought them out and went ahead with his plans. When the Connecticut smoking ban went into effect in 2004, Greenberg was sitting pretty. He transformed The Owl Shop from a cigar store with a lounge into a cigar store with a full cigar bar, stocked with upscale liquors. "All of a sudden, because I had the license, it allowed me to smoke and drink," he says.

The refurbished room has a tin ceiling, slow-turning ceiling fans and a huge bar that takes up the middle of the room. In the back are sofas and chairs. The crowd "is very eclectic, across the board," says Greenberg, who decorated one part of the room with old Owl Shop labels, celebrating the long history of the store. He also still employs Joe Lentine, a pipe tobacco blender and cigar expert who has worked there since 1964, when he was 19 years old. "Yale U. grad students, politicos, actorsÉhere egos are left at the door," says Greenberg. "Everyone has this one common denominator—the cigar."

Fifty years ago, when The Owl Shop was a young store, cigar lounges were a rarity—a man could, and did, smoke virtually anywhere, so why hang out in a shop?

"In those days, everyone from the floor worker to the executive smoked cigars. If you paid 25 cents, you were a big spender," says Ron Shapiro, 66, who got his start working for his family's M&R Smoke Shop in the fur center of Manhattan's Garment District in the 1950s and 1960s. "Especially in New York City where we had our stores, you didn't have space for a smoking lounge—unless you were Dunhill or Nat Sherman. Today, if you don't have that extra space to set up a lounge, it's going to hurt the bottom line."


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