More Tobacco Stores Are Snuffed Out

Posted: June 07, 1992

The Don Diegos, Fuentes and premium hand-rolled Macanudos stacked on the shelves of the walk-in humidor at the Wooden Indian tobacco shop are protected behind a glass door plastered with bold bumper stickers that shout "Don't bug me, I'm smoking" and "I vote and I smoke."

The shop, tucked away in a corner of the Manoa Shopping Center in Haverford Township, is one of the few surviving tobacco shops in the area. And the pro- smoking sentiment that decorates the entry to its climate-controlled stogie sanctum sanctorum is its modest attempt to defend itself against a culture growing increasingly health conscious and politically correct.

"This country is the only one that's like this about smoking," said Eliot Nemerofsky, owner of the Wooden Indian. "Go to a place like Mexico and walk into a restaurant, and they don't even know smoking from non-smoking. Everyone smokes like chimneys, and it's not considered offensive."

Forget offensive. Smoking, especially cigar smoking, is illegal in most public places. Cigar smokers also complain about being banned from their homes and even of being scolded on the street by strangers.

It wasn't always thus. In 1959, actress Edie Adams began one of the longest running TV advertising campaigns in history when she began a 19-year stint as the slinky, sexy spokeswoman for Muriel cigars.

"We all know you shouldn't inhale cigarettes, but cigars are a different breed," Adams, a nonsmoker, said in a telephone interview from her Los Angeles home. "Cigars are an ambience, an attitude. They represent a tradition in good living that we lack today."

Adams was married to comedian Ernie Kovacs, a familiar cigar puffer who did ads for Dutch Masters. "But Ernie was always careful to only smoke good cigars," Adams said. "If he was in a cab, and the driver was smoking a bad cigar, Ernie would get out."

These days, good cigars, bad cigars, it doesn't make much difference. Lit stogies are unwelcome most places, and as a result, the neighborhood tobacconist has taken it right on the balance sheet. According to the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America, member stores have dwindled from 1,800 to 1,500 in just the last three years.

"People looking for a business to start don't sit around saying to themselves, 'Well, I think I'll start a smoke shop,' " said Tom DiTonno, who owns Tobacco Country at Neshaminy Mall. "The strong ones hang on, and the weak ones are falling away. The adverse publicity on cigarettes has started to catch up to cigars."

One of DiTonno's customers, Jim Dolan, a retired member of the Teamsters union from Mercerville, N.J., drives 32 miles round-trip to pick up his Honduran cigars.

"There's just no tobacco places around," Dolan said. "So, once a week, I make a run and grab a couple of bundles for myself and some friends."

But local tobacco stores are looking forward to one of their annual retail spikes soon. Father's Day, June 21, is second only to Christmas as a sales jump-starter.

The advantage for gift-hunting wives, daughters and girlfriends is that they don't have to worry about fit or color. And most tobacconists say women turn out to be bigger spenders than men.

"Women may buy a little more expensive cigar because it's a present for a special day, or they may get a little more expensive humidor," said Marybeth Gartside, who manages Ye Olde Tobacco Barrell at the Bazaar Shopping Center in Clifton Heights. Premium cigars run from $3 to $8, and sometimes even more. And desktop humidors, often lined in cedar, can range from $100 to $150, and the cost can climb to several hundred dollars if they're made of Brazilian hardwood.

However, Gartside said she primarily sold modestly priced cigars, largely to older clients who lived in the apartment building directly behind the shopping center.

Many tobacconists, especially the ones trying to make a go of it in malls where rents can be expensive, have had to diversify, using more and more floor space for nonsmoking items.

DiTonno, for example, carries a line of sports collectibles such as Mike Schmidt statuettes and autographed baseballs. Ye Olde Tobacco Barrell at the King of Prussia Plaza has a walk-in humidor and a wide variety of imported cigars, but it also stocks chess sets, expensive fountain pens and decorative steins alongside its tobacco products.

"You have to do what you have to do to stay in business," said store manager Gary Bart.

Sam Frieder, chief executive officer of D.E.S. Tobacco Corp. in Jenkintown, is a third-generation tobacconist. His company operates 10 retail outlets in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, including the Olde Tobacco Barrell stores.

Frieder said the cigar business had shifted from the middle-class market to more upscale products.

"In the old days, the big volume was in what we called drugstore cigars, White Owls and Phillies," Frieder said. "That market has gone away, and in its place, we have the handmade, all-tobacco, imported cigars from Honduras and the Dominican Republic. The top end of the market has held its own pretty well, but the lower end has dropped precipitously."

Perhaps because of the shift in the cigar market, the corner tobacconist has become a thing of the past. Aside from a handful of well-known tobbaco emporiums such as Holt's Tobacconist in Center City Philadelphia, few sidewalk storefronts have survived, especially in the suburbs.

Bob's Variety in the Benson East Building in Jenkintown used to be Bob's Smoke Shop and is still listed that way on the lobby directory. But 63-year- old Bob Gerber, who operates the store with his wife, Alma, started pushing the Macanudos aside to make way for Tastykakes and replaced his humidor with upright soft drink refrigerators years ago.

"The cigar smoker is disappearing," said Gerber. "The government and the nonsmokers are going to keep pushing this anti-smoking thing until it gets like Prohibition with alcohol. One of these days, they'll try to outlaw cigarettes altogether, and the smokers will revolt. And the people who sell cigarettes and cigars illegally will make a fortune, just like the bootleggers did in the 1920s."

In West Chester, Mike Cugino still carries a healthy line of premium cigars in his downtown shop, and he plans to stock up on Monte Cruz cigars this summer for Eagles coach Rich Kotite. The football team arrives for training camp at West Chester University in July. But to stay alive, Cugino has had to branch out.

Like most tobacconists, he has a Pennsylvania State Lottery machine. And in addition to carrying snack items, ice cream and water ice, Cugino operates a notary public service and hopes to start taking electric company bill payments.

"Actually, we're pretty fortunate with our location," Cugino said. "We have the (Chester County) courthouse a block away, and we get a fair share of judges and lawyers coming in for cigars, and that's where a lot of the market is today, professionals who have the money to afford a cigar that's going to cost $2, $3 or $5.

"I'd say our cigar business has picked up a little lately, and we're starting to get younger cigar smokers, 25 to 35 years old." The two most noticeable trends in cigars have been downsizing and "bundles."

Out are the long, fat submarines associated in cartoons with captains of industry. Today's cigar smoker realizes that there are so few places to enjoy a smoke that anything that lasts longer than 45 minutes will have to be tossed away. So more cigars are being designed to be shorter.

Bundles are cellophane-wrapped, good-quality cigars, packaged in clusters of 25 or so, that can be sold at discount prices because they eschew big-name labels and fancy boxes.

Still, marketing strategies aside, the cigar - once a symbol of success - is under siege. Corporate image-remakers even took the trademark cigar out of the mouth of Pep Boy Manny.

Even cigarette smokers get better treatment than stogie puffers, though it's generally conceded that cigars are not as harmful because almost no one inhales their smoke. For instance, cigarette smoking is all right on international airplane flights, but cigars, along with pipes, are verboten.

"The killer came one night when I was sitting in a bar, waiting for a dinner table," said cigar smoker Dolan. "There's smoke all over the room so I light up one of my good cigars. In a few minutes, the barmaid is asking me to put it out because another customer is complaining. I look over, and this woman who beefed has a cigarette in her hand. That was it, I was gone."

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