My childhood buddy from Kansas, Jim Norris, had always wanted to see Tampa. OK, that's not true. A cigar vampire, he really wanted to check out Ybor City, Florida, which neighbors Tampa. That, after all, was the city where millions of cigars were rolled at the turn of the last century—and many by hand. Our mutual friend Linda Wood went along for the ride. Two days earlier, she had competed in Tampa's Escape from Fort Desoto sprint triathlon while Jim minded her gear and took photographs of her crossing the finish line. Going to Ybor City was the least she could do.
Ybor City takes its name from Vicente Martinez Ybor, who started things rolling with a cigarmaking business in 1850s Cuba. In 1885, after one Cuban revolution too many erupted, he bought 40 sandy acres near Tampa and turned it into the cigar capital of the world. To lure Cuban cigamakers—who considered themselves artisans—Ybor converted the acreage into a turn-of-the-19th-century worker's utopia, with stores, parks and hundreds of little white houses called casitas, which the workers could purchase for cost. Oh, and the pay was great. Other factories followed, which was fine by Ybor: He knew it only increased the pool of skilled workers.
"The culture was unique—the cigar was an equalizer. Hispanics, blacks, Cubans, whites rolling cigars together," said Shanda Lee, director of marketing for J.C. Newman Cigar Co.—yes, the same people you can thank for the cellophane tube—and the last operating cigar company of any size in Ybor. Lee took us for a quick, personal tour of the old 1910 El Reloj Factory (2709 16th Street, 813-248-2124) museum, pointing out the millstone once used to grind filler tobacco, and the glass-encased movement of the huge tower-mounted clock that gave the factory its name. A 1993 painting of a rolling floor by Ferdie Pacheco showed rows of cigarmakers working at tables while a lectore sat above them reading. "The lectore read aloud newspapers, novels, plays, nonfiction works," she said. "Many rollers were illiterate, but they were proud of their knowledge of literature and politics."
Ybor City suffered a run of bad luck when the Depression struck and then the cigarette became the latest thing in tobacco; without cigar manufacturing, the factories closed and the makers were laid off, and the city devolved into a slum. Buildings were shuttered and torn down, including nearly all the little white casitas, which explained the grass-covered lots everywhere. But in the 70s and 80s, after urban renewal failed, an army of artists invaded and began gentrifying. More urban pioneers followed and made Ybor City into a National Historic Landmark District.
With its low, red-brick stores—many on the National Register of Historic Places—Ybor City feels more like the small town we grew up in, Paola, Kansas. Most of the good stuff runs along one brick-paved street, 7th Avenue, the cigar lover's French Quarter, only not as contrived and with loads more free parking. And it's not as loud, either, at least during the day. At night, with around 15 bars and nightclubs playing jazz and blues, Ybor City turns into party central. Now that's more like the French Quarter.
King Corona Cigars Café & Bar serves Cuban-style coffee and features a walk-in humidor, stocked with name brand cigars and it's own hand-rolled smokes.
We parked, sauntering past the King Corona Cigars Café & Bar (1523 East 7th; 813-241-9190, www.kingcoronacigars.com) where, outside, cigar smokers sipped on Cafe Solo (Cuban espresso), and Cafe con Leche (Cuban espresso with steamed milk). They're made from Kana Cuban Coffee, which is for sale inside the large, old-timey store, along with food, an array of imported beer and wine, a barbershop (we're talking a shave and a haircut in a real barber's chair) that's encased in glass so spectators can watch (how many people have seen someone getting a shave with a straight razor?), and a walk-in humidor packed with 60 brands of name cigars—and King Corona's own hand-rolled cigars.
We went into El Sol Cigars (www.elsolcigars.com, 813-248-5905) and checked out display case after display case filled with brand name cigars, and a humidor packed with more. Jim started drooling at the glass cases and a humidor filled with every cigar imaginable—both name-brand and El Sol's own line rolled off-premises—but he managed to hold out until we reached La Herencia De Cuba (www.ramirezcigars.com; 813-817-6653), a narrow, dark store, with a lounge in the back and a bar. We watched as a Hispanic gent, Roberto Ramirez (it's a family business), sat at a tobacco-worn table, like a factory cigarmaker in Pacheco's painting, his fingers nimbly laying down strips of wrapper tobacco and spreading a ridge of filler tobacco and rolling up a cigar, pretty much in one motion, then he pushed the almost-finished cigar into a mold half-filled with other nearly finished cigars. It would sit for a few hours before he rolled on the final leaf. While Linda and I watched Ramirez, Jim slipped inside the humidor—filled with nothing but hand-rolled cigars—for a La Herencia Cubana Torpedo. Handmade and only $4.50, he said.
"Fire that bad boy up," I said.
"When I get back to Kansas," he explained.
After three delicious Cuban sandwiches at Gaspar's Grotto ("Tampa's Only Pirate Bar & Restaurant") we returned to King Corona, where the same customers still sat smoking and sipping outside. Time moves slowly here. Jim said he was going in for a souvenir so Linda and I followed him in, ambling through the store (though no one was getting a shave or a haircut). Jim spent a few minutes inside the humidor, and I saw a clerk slip a box of Ybor Handmades into a paper bag, while Linda spotted a pile of empty wooden boxes for sale. She dropped to her knees and dug out a few fine examples, and pointed out a cardboard cigar box. It looked familiar even though I never checked out the brand.
"That was our kindergarten box," she said. "No one smoked them but everyone had a box." No one in kindergarten smoked them, I think she meant. Back in the day our school district required each of us to have one for supplies like crayons, erasers, a fat pencil and snub-nose scissors. For us late-boomers growing up in the 1960s, a small-town drug store never had a shortage of cigar boxes.