Smoke Shops
Offer Refuge

In New York City, displaced smokers find a lone oasis in the lounges of tobacco retailers.

By Joe Finora

It's tough being a cigar smoker in New York City these days. The smoking ban imposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg is driving cigar lovers into fewer and fewer "safe havens." As a result, several cigar shops, which already had lounges, are experiencing a wide variety of effects from smokers seeking shelter from the storm.

"It's been an absolute boon," says David Kitchens, general manager at Davidoff of Geneva's flagship New York City store, but they've had to make several physical improvements to the shop in order to fully accommodate smokers. Mostly this has entailed installing improved ventilation, filters, and insulation at various points within the building to keep neighbors satisfied. But the payoff has been worth the effort, according to Kitchens.

"We spent three to four months correcting ventilation problems. It was very expensive," says Kitchens. One of the more unusual projects included installing a smoke eater in a neighbor's space but tying it to Davidoff's electrical system. Other jobs included caulking cracks and adding insulation in previously empty interior wall space.

"We're trying to be accommodating to the walk-in smoker," says Kitchens, who adds that since people cannot smoke in restaurants they're coming into his shop. The result: customers linger longer and learn and buy more.

"We're getting captive audiences resulting in 20-30 times more sales opportunities," Kitchens says, adding that as customers remain in the store, they notice things they ordinarily wouldn't. The store is selling more smoking accessories, including leather goods, cuff links and ties, in addition to cigars and other tobacco-related products. "We're benefiting from a greater sense of place," notes Kitchens, who adds that additional staff has not been added. Instead, they're relying on a more efficient deployment of existing staff and working hard to keep them knowledgeable about the various products and services clients are inquiring about. The result is that they are able to provide an experience that is as informative as it is entertaining, a trait that is reverberating throughout the New York City cigar-retail community. Events also include speaking engagements led by prominent members of the cigar industry plus presentations and tastings that examine the various elements of a cigar. They're regularly well attended, according to Kitchens, who adds that events can help build customer interest in new products. They are promoted through the shop's website (www.davidoffmadison.com) and a calling list. A second New York City Davidoff shop is opening at the AOL-Time Warner building in mid-Manhattan in early 2004. It will also feature a cozy lounge area and a lively events calendar.

Weekly events at Nat Sherman have included cigar tastings, live music, and bourbon and microbrew tastings.
"We listen to customers' ideas," says Kitchens, "but can't always follow them." Several customers have asked for a Bloomberg terminal to be installed so they can watch financial market activity while enjoying a smoke. "We won't do that. We want to be an oasis." Unsaid is a not-so-subtle-irony: Bloomberg L.P. is the information and news giant founded by New York's Mayor Bloomberg.

Considerably more agitated is Joel Sherman, president and c.e.o. of Nat Sherman, who says, "Smokers are having their rights violated. The industry is ashamed of itself. We're losing our rights and being made to feel like second-class citizens."

It is in this climate that Sherman maintains a vibrant retail store on 42nd St. and Fifth Ave. in the heart of Midtown Manhattan. "We're offering a respite," says Sherman. And the team is doing quite a good job at it as walk-in traffic is steady and sales are healthy.

While the retail store is kept more as a "testing ground" and "experimental lab" for new products and services, it's also evolving into a refuge for cigar smokers. Following the smoking-less, but-smoking-better trend - something Nat Sherman has been doing for a long time - its lounge has emerged as a "place of sanity in a crazy world."

On one Sunday last August, the store was even host to a wedding. "The couple was European and wanted a place where their guests could smoke. We were happy to be able to make them happy," says Sherman. More regular entertainment includes a player at the store's Baby Grand Piano to keep the atmosphere civilized and upscale, as well as comfortable seats placed in various locations around the store to accommodate the weary smoker. Sherman, who says he is "appalled" at how smokers are being treated, notes he was the only tobacconist at New York City Council meetings in 2002 when the anti-smoking legislation was being passed.

"Tobacconists should not be hiding their heads in the sand," he says. And while he's angry at the current state of affairs, he says new products, such as Nat Sherman New York Cut cigarettes, have been well received and are moving in the right direction on the sales chart, proving that customers will welcome new products targeting specific niches, despite a hostile climate.

Richard Hu, proprietor of lower Manhattan's The Wall St. Humidor, says traffic in his store has been steadily growing since the smoking ban extended its tentacles into the bars and restaurants of New York City. The shop, which sells only handmade cigars and related accoutrements, maintains a lounge of 20 to 30 seats plus an espresso machine. It caters to a wide range of clients including many local banking and investment types, as well as television company employees and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which now has a greater presence than ever in the beleaguered community.

"The ban has had a negative impact on a lot of area businesses," says Hu. "It's left people with no venues in which to smoke. Smokers are coming in, thankfully." Hu agrees that smokers are pursuing quality over quantity and he intends to expand his lounge area into the store's downstairs.

Vincent Nastri of legendary Barclay-Rex Pipe Shop, also in lower Manhattan, says the summer season was good because smokers were able to enjoy their products outdoors, but the ban's real effect will come with the arrival of colder weather. "Where will they smoke?" he asks, pointing out that places like golf courses provided a refuge in the warm months for the smoker seeking a pleasant place to puff.

"Smokers don't approve of these actions," Nastri notes. "Restaurants are hurting from the loss of smokers." His lounges, however, are always full and open from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., six days a week. Two of the four Barclay-Rex shops in Manhattan have lounges of 12-13 seats but there are no plans to install lounges in the other locations. The customer ratio remains about 75-80% men but ages run the gamut and the preferences remain for the better cigars.

Promotions have also helped at Barclay-Rex. Rollers provide cigar-making demonstrations and the store has also had numerous two-for-one events, promoted largely through direct mail. Catalog sales remain steady as well, says Nastri, who's family has been in the business since 1910.

Bans Pick up Speed Nationally
Other states are following New York's misguided example. Maine's governor signed into law a ban on smoking in taverns, pool halls, lounges, and some off-track betting sites that goes into effect Jan. 1. Smoking is already outlawed in Maine restaurants. Connecticut now prohibits smoking in cafes, taverns, restaurants, and public facilities thanks to a measure signed by the state's governor in May; the ban went into effect on October 1. Florida's smoking ban is slightly less restrictive, banning smoking in all enclosed workplaces, including restaurants and bars where food sales make up at least 10 percent of their business.

"This won't get better any time soon," Nastri says, before adding that while locations like nearby New Jersey are benefiting, New York's Mayor is not bothered by either the revenue loss or the ill will it's created. While that may be so, other groups have emerged to fight for smokers' rights in New York City - a home to organized radicals from pre-Revolutionary War days.

Nor is the community the law is supposed to "protect" pleased with it. "We have found that complaints have increased regarding street noise, particularly when it comes to smokers," says Kyle Merker, chairman of a Manhattan community board. "Realistically, are they going to repeal the law? No. But maybe we can refine it."

And in New York, Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (Clash, www.nycclash.com) is urging sympathizers to vote out of office those legislators who supported the ban. Clash also urges people not to eat or drink in places where they cannot smoke, not to pay more for cigarettes than they have to, and to support tavern owners who have shut down Quick Draw, a New York State lottery game that operates in many bars. In one week last May, Clash claims the anti-Quick Draw action cost New York State some $600,000 in lost lottery revenue. Organized by Audrey Silk, they provoke smokers into political action by asking: "What will it take to light a fire under your butts?"

As this is being written on Election Day in New York it's hard to tell what the effects will be. Stand by. But for anyone wishing to take over City Hall, this time the pro-tobacco groups are willing to lend their support.

SMOKESHOP - October, 2003