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I like to help people.  I also appreciate good people and good services.  So, I have no problem whatsoever writing this column about my great friends at the Top Shelf Cigar Shoppe in Martinez (Evans [greater Augusta]), Georgia.  This is part of my continuing series on good businesses.

My family and I moved to Augusta about six years ago.  I needed to find a top-notch place to purchase and enjoy fine cigars.  There were and still are several tobacco businesses in the area, each unique in its own way.  However, when I first visited Top Shelf I knew I was “home.” 

Just about every city over 100,000 in population has at least one cigar shop.  Some are decent, others are good, some are great.  Top Shelf falls into the rare great category.  If you live in the area and enjoy fine cigars, I highly recommend a visit.  Find them on the web, here: http://www.topshelfcigarshoppe.com/.  If you’re visiting or just passing through, you’ll feel right at home.

Top Shelf is the brainchild and proprietary interest of Mr. Russell Wilder.  After retiring early, Russell knew he wanted to develop a special place dedicated to premium cigars and pipe tobacco.  He has more than accomplished his original goal, having built one of the most recognized and distinctive stores in America.  This has not been am easy process.  Often he reports to work before the sun rises and doesn’t leave until it is dark again.  He goes the extra mile for his customers and with his suppliers and employees. 

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(Russell and his boss.)

Russell regularly attends national conventions and trade shows and has a personal relationship with most of the major players in the modern cigar market.  Just the other day he returned from a trip to Esteli, Nicaragua and a visit to Nick Perdomo’s growing and production operation.  Nick and other cigar royalty have been quests at Russell’s shop over the years. 

I’ve been to cigar shop’s from Florida to New Hampshire.  The really good one’s are memorable because they get things right.  In addition to maintaining an inventory which works for the local market, owners must follow trends and design their stores to be as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.

Russell has had three different locations, each an improvement over the previous incarnation.  His original shop was in a shopping center.  As is (or was), it was an excellent place.  However, when the opportunity presented itself to move to a larger space where he could upgrade most of the shop’s features, Russell didn’t hesitate.  I helped move some of the stock and furniture from place to place as did most other “regulars.”  A great shop will always have at least a few regular customers on hand to demonstrate the quality of the business.

Last summer Russell made a quantum leap.  He bought his own freestanding building and moved his shop to its current location on Columbia Road.  This provides easy access from Washington and Wheeler roads, both major arteries, as well as access to Interstates 20 and 520.  There are some interior pictures of the new shop at the link above.  You may notice a rounder version of your’s truly in one of those – seated at the domino table with a few other vagabonds.

The new shop is a model of cigar industry environment and decor.  It features a giant, two-room walk-in humidor with dark wood and exposed brick trim.  The rest of the building (even the huge bathroom) is covered floor and ceiling in rich judge’s panelling and tongue and groove Arkansas pine.  The floor is a beautiful faux stone.  I played a small part in the remodeling of the new space, working several nights until late with a crew of other dedicated regulars to help Russell build his dream.  It was well worth it.  And, it says something about a man when so many of his friends and customers will pitch in on a construction project of that magnitude for free.  The greater portion of the credit for the new design goes to one Scott Kirby, who single-handed did about 80% of the interior work.  Everything you see is hand, scratch built.  The design rivals anything I’ve ever seen in the cigar best of any major city.  Think a luxury shop in New York or London.

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(Kipling in the humidor.)

Any liquor store with a license can sell cigars.  Some lower-rent aficionados go so far as to buy cigars on-line.  A great shop makes for a great experience.  Russell and his staff – wife Sharon (the real boss), daughter Sarah, Gerald, Tom, and Matt – know the business inside and out and can make tremendous recommendations and comparisons. 

Another critical facet of a successful shop is the smoking lounge.  As noted above, Top Shelf’s is trimmed in luxurious wood and stone.  It has three air-cleaners to keep the atmosphere breathable no matter how many cigars are being enjoyed.  There is spacious seating for many friends to gather in comfort.  Russell provides humidified lockers, a giant screen television with cable, a refrigerator, free coffee, and innumerable other services.  The lounge is usually busy any hour of the day, any day of the week.

As part of going the extra mile Russell offers many additional perks.  The shop is home to a premium club with meets at least once a month.  The meetings provide an entertaining opportunity for fellowship and the enjoyment of the latest cigars.  The shop also hosts a friendly poker game once a week (no cash).  Russell also is deeply involved in the community.  From his annual charity golf tournament to providing cigars to local businesses and clubs to keeping the smoke-loving patrons of the Masters happy, Russell is everywhere.

An arch-libertarian, Russell is happy to give his opinion on politics and economics to both his customers and friends as well as the local media.  Russell also has a keen sense for the stock market and is always dropping profitable hints to those who will listen.  This level of personal service is what puts Top Shelf above just about any other store in the Southeast.

Drop by for a visit if you can.  If not, scour your area for a shop with the traits I’ve listed here.  You’ll be glad you did.  Not a cigar lover?  Shame on you.  There is still time!