Boston's Gloucester Street Cigar Co. captures perfectly the city's passion for style and sophistication with its personal, small-town feel.

by Christopher Garner

Strolling down Newbury Street, the heart of Boston's shopping district, one can find the highest quality clothing, art, food, accessories, and toys that the free world has to offer. As one of America's oldest cities, Boston combines the past and the present in an energetic amalgam of culture. Luckily for those who appreciate a good smoke and a great tobacco shop, the same can be said for cigars. This prime district offers smokers a retail store that is knowledgeable, friendly, has a wide assortment of merchandise, and exhibits a willingness to satisfy the customer.

Gloucester Street Cigar Co., located in a converted brick townhouse typical of Newbury Street and Boston's Back Bay district, prides itself on all of these points. From the moment I walked through the door on a recent visit, the rich aroma of smoking cigars swept my stresses away and live Flamenco music brought a smile to my face as I submersed myself in the store's ambiance. Initially unaware of my intentions as an industry reporter, the manager, Jose Agosto, immediately greeted me with a warm handshake while effortlessly enjoying an unlabeled double corona. He was helpful, friendly, and kept noting, "If we don't have it, we can get it!"

Gloucester takes great pride in serving the needs of its customers, benefitting everyone involved. I was thrilled to see someone so seemingly in love with the art of cigar rolling and smoking.

Stocked wall-to-wall with accessories, this European-style tobacconist has only the finest humidors, travel humidors, ashtrays, lighters, and other cigar accouterment. Gloucester also carries a number of premium gentleman's accessories, and does a brisk business serving pipe smokers, offering 70 to 80 flavors and brands of pipe tobacco with three house blends.

Enthusiasts can also find quality pipes by Dunhill, Ashton, and Ser Jacopo that number more than 130 in total. But it is often the beautiful selection of pipes hand crafted exclusively for Gloucester Street by Boston-based Armenian carver Norik Pischdotchian that leaves pipes smokers most impressed. It also serves as a distinct point of difference from other local pipe and tobacco shops in terms of merchandise. The pride and passion with which Norik carves his pieces is evident in his face, his words, and especially in his work. With well over 150 custom pipes on display, it can take some time to understand the assortment, the artist, and the effort behind them.

"I think that the American market often downplays the true beauty of cigar smoking," notes Agosto, explaining why this style of store has working so well for him. "They often treat it like cigarettes, as if a smoker is just here to buy what he needs and get out. That's not cigar smoking at all. Cigar smoking is an experience that revolves around time; the time to grow, the time to age, the time to shop, and the time to do more than enjoy a cigar. It's the time to understand it."

In addition to the relaxed atmosphere, Gloucester assists in educating its customers, a never-ending process of unraveling the many mysteries of cigar styles, tobacco types, and other esoterica that fascinates passionate cigar smokers - Agosto among them. With a walk-in humidor stocked with over 200 cigar brands - 5,000 different frontmarks in all - there is plenty to discuss.

"It is a field of study, a hobby of sorts," he adds. "People want to come in and learn, so when they're around other cigar smokers they can enjoy their leisure time with conversation about a topic that takes a lifetime to truly learn." Agosto's respect for cigars and smokers derives from his own personal passion for smoking; but even when combined with his professional drive as a retailer, Agosto is able to put customers at ease. In an effort to talk to customers as a fellow cigar-smoking friend, he makes a concerted effort to personally remember the names of all of his customers.

Such attention goes a long way in achieving customer loyalty and creating a positive shopping experience. "Just look at the faces of the staff, and most importantly, the faces of the customers," noted Victor Vitale of Ashton Cigar Distributors, when asked on a recent visit what makes Gloucester store exceptional.

Gloucester Street Cigar Co. opened in 1996, just prior to the peak boom time in retail cigar sales, when competition from both established stores and other new launches meant success was far from guaranteed. To survive through this critical startup phase - much less continue to thrive through the changing market - Agosto says a retailer needs to know his customers and take care of them individually.

When challenged and asked what his secret really was, Agosto looked around the room for walls that might have ears and said, "Making sure everyone in the store [staff] knows what they are talking about. If they don't, a customer will lose interest in the store, the store loses credibility, and I lose a customer."

Agosto knows what customers want and prides himself on providing it, but also holds a distinct vision of his store as a "place where people can relax and inquire." From staff members dressed in nice suits or casual slacks to a compact, cozy atmosphere, Gloucester Street presents a competent but not intimidating experience for shoppers.

"When a store is too dark and poorly lit, with poorly dressed people, it makes the customer feel like he is not being taken seriously," notes Agosto. "Customers like to be taken as seriously as they take their cigars. We have the long hair and big grins, but we're all business when it comes to understanding cigars and explaining their qualities to our customers."

Every Friday and Saturday there is live music, generally of Caribbean or Latin decent. Combined with the subtle lighting, classic leather chairs, and boundless smiles, it is not hard to imagine a regular customer looking forward to a visit, signaling the end of a long week and a smoking reward just ahead. In a city passionate about history and tradition, Gloucester Street presents a contemporary attitude and flavor, while infusing its wisdom of - and love for - cigars into every sale.

Other services cater to pure convenience, such as a "drive by and pick up" option, whereby shoppers can call ahead and tell the store exactly what they need; the shop will have it ready to deliver to them in their car. Touches such as free, on-premise lighter fuel refills - regardless of where a customer bought their lighter - and free polishing for lighters and cutters, add a personal touch that builds good-will among repeat customers. Gloucester even encourages customers to bring their humidors into the shop advice on how to keep it in top functioning condition.

The shop has also leveraged its expertise in the accessory items by marketing its engraving or monogramming capabilities for a wide range of merchandise it already sells. Alternate target markets include use as corporate gift or "special occasion momentos." Cigar "catering" projects have included corporate events, weddings, and other special occasions.

Treating customers like people, in a day when that is so very hard to come by, gives Agosto an edge. But it goes beyond customer service for Agosto. It comes down to understanding the products he sells, enjoying his work, and letting his respect and knowledge for this art flow from every angle. But Agosto isn't the only person that gets an edge out of his style.

Stopping into a nearby tavern for an evening cigar, I came upon a man smoking a Padron. "Jose knows my name. Jose knows what I smoke. Jose knows about every cigar in that store, and so does the staff," the gentlemen said when asked if he was familiar with the shop. "They know what to recommend based on what I smoke and what I have tried before. I have been to a lot of storesÉand never have I seen a retail store with such a dedication to the business and to its customers."

And that is the big payoff: a mutually beneficial business relationship built on trust and mutual respect.

SMOKESHOP - February 2000