Photo provided by Luke of aspiringgentleman.com
I’ve smoked cigars for a number of years now, dating back to freshman year of college. I remember walking into one of the local tobacconists with my friends as we hunted for what would be a good cigar. We were greeted with the scent of rich tobaccos, a warmly lit store, and a friendly staff. We weren’t looked down on for being a bunch of fresh young faces, talked down to because we had no idea what to look for, or taken advantage of because we didn’t know what made a good cigar. None of that mattered to the store owner or staff; what they saw was a group of gentlemen who were interested and that they could help. The staff wasn’t pushy about what cigars we should buy; actually, they didn’t suggest anything until we asked questions and told them what we were interested in. Many of us steered away from the higher priced premiums and boutique cigars like Ashtons and Zinos, some of us chose them. Either way the staff was happy to have helped us and hoped we would enjoy our selections. Many of us have returned numerous times since that visit.
That was my first experience with a local tobacconist, and it’s a similar experience as I have with almost every new shop. One thing that I’ve almost always had the pleasure of is a friendly and knowledgeable staff. Those two key words cannot be stressed enough with a good shop of any kind. The staff can know everything in the world about their products, but an unfriendly or abrasive demeanor will ruin the experience for anyone. Likewise, a friendly staff may be great to chat with, but I’d like them to know what they’re selling and be able to help me with a new selection if I want something different from my usual cigars. I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve been able to have both with most of the stores I’ve gone to. Along with friendliness and knowledge, the staff needs to know when to offer help and when to let the customer browse. It sounds like common sense, but we’ve all been to shops where the staff has either ignored us or tried to cram something down our throat because it’s what they think we would want as compared to what we think we would want. It is never a good experience at either extreme, and a good staff will be happy to offer advice and impart some knowledge, but won’t try to push any particular cigar onto you. They may suggest something, or hint towards a brand, but they should not push it onto you.
A good staff is only part of a good store — another important piece is their prices. I’ll admit it right now: you cannot beat online retailers for the majority of cigars. Even after shipping, you can generally find prices under or just breaking even with what your local brick and mortar has. Some of the higher end premium cigars like Padron Anniversaries, Opus Xs, Zinos, and others may be similarly priced as online retailers, but most others will be, at a minimum, a couple dollars less. Now, knowing and understanding that, why would I ever bother stopping by a local shop again? Because price isn’t everything.
I’ll admit, price plays a part in whether or not I frequent a store and how often I will, but it’s only a part of the equation. I expect reasonable prices at a local shop, nothing more and nothing less. A couple dollars above what I find online is reasonable for me, and is to be expected. Remember, a local shop has to pay rent if they don’t own the building, has staff members to pay, stock to buy, etc, and don’t forget, depending on the location, a tax for selling tobacco products. All of that factors into paying a little extra as compared to what you find online. However, that extra should be a reasonable amount. If I walk into a store and find Padron 2000s for more than $4.50, then I’d say they’re still on par with what I can get online. $5.00 or $5.50 is reasonable for me. Beyond that, then I’ll have to look into what else the store offers, like their staff, their lounge, and the patrons that frequent the store.
That leads me into the lounge… Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a place that’s meant for enjoying a cigar and some company. Comfortable seats that you can lounge back into, a warm atmosphere that lets you unwind and tune out the outside world, some pleasant reading or something entertaining to watch, maybe a stereo that has some enjoyable music, drinks that you can sip with your chosen cigar… It isn’t mandatory to have all of those things, but it is certainly nice. The ambiance of the lounge should be warm and relaxing at the very least, letting you tune out all the stresses from outside and sit back to get some enjoyment from your chosen cigar. A stereo, radio, or TV is a very nice addition to a lounge since it gives you something to unwind to and keep you entertained as you smoke. For that matter, decent reading material would serve nicely as well. I don’t expect to watch the latest UFC fight at a cigar lounge, but I do expect something I can kick back to and mellow out with. Another excellent addition would be drinks of some kind. Coffee is a great offering at a cigar lounge because it’s relatively cheap for the store, and will usually be cheap or free for you. The three shops I’ve frequented offered it for free and always had some freshly made up. Some shops will offer alcohol in their lounge, which is a huge plus but not a necessity. Really, a place to be able to kick back, relax, and enjoy a cigar with some friends is all you really need, and everything else is a plus. Sadly, some states have banned smoking indoors, even within tobacconists. For that I can’t blame the store and won’t fault them for it, but I’ll expect other things from it instead.
So we’ve touched on the store itself, but what else is there? There are the patrons who frequent that particular shop for one thing. I enjoy talking with the staff, and they’re usually wonderful hosts when I sit down in their lounge, but they do have to work. That’s where the other patrons come into play. Of all the stores I’ve been to, only one has had a crowd I didn’t care for, and I haven’t returned to it since. For the other stores, I’ve found that the crowd is welcoming and always has something entertaining to talk about. The first shop I visited was frequented by some more senior residents of the city who had plenty of stories and wisdom to give. Now don’t read that as old, I just mean senior to me, who at the time was a college freshman. They were happy to have me sit down with them and start chatting about who I was, where I was from, what I was doing, and what my interests were. Conversation would shift towards shared interests, taste in cigars, and life experiences. Politics and religion were kept out of the mix for good reason, since those tend to ignite tempers, and we kept things relaxed and enjoyable. Now the regulars at the other shops varied in age, race, religion, and background, but that general friendliness and interest has been a constant: polite people who are friendly, personable, and easy to share some kind of bond with.
Lastly, a good tobacconist will be able to offer a human touch to cigars. That draws on the staff, the patrons, and the atmosphere. I walk into a shop and expect to talk to the staff, chat with a few of the other customers, and be able to escape from the outside world for a little bit. I expect the staff to be able to help me out with a new selection, give me a heads up on new lines coming out or ones that are being discontinued, and point me towards similar cigars I may also like. I expect the people in the lounge to be amicable and the lounge itself to be a place where I can escape to and relax. All of those things factor into it being a place where I can go to and socialize and relax. It’s a different environment from being at my house, or on the porch, or in the yard. It’s something you can’t get online and will have to experience yourself to really get a feeling for.
Special thanks to Eddie Atalla and his staff at Tobacco Country USA for letting me take photos of his shop. He and his staff are exemplary in what I feel is an excellent tobacconist. My only regret is not being able to get a photo with him and his staff while I was in town with them.