This is a pet subject of mine. I’ve written about it before several times. In my older article, Proper Cigar Etiquette I offered a brief glimpse of what helps make a great cigar shop great. Several chapters of the Happy Little Cigar Book are so dedicated and I even offer a short list of recommended shops.
America is a large place and, thankfully, filled with many, many decent to excellent tobacco houses and bars. The only way to really cover them all would be with a Fordor’s-style travel guide. That would take a while to put together though I am open to the idea. If I solicit you as part of a crowd-funding effort, please contribute. Hmmm… I might have to do a volume about shops in Europe too…
Anyway, for now, here are some generic ideas for picking the right shop. For starters, let’s examine some of the wrong shops.
What To Avoid
Not every place that sells tobacco in general, even to include cigars, is a real cigar shop. Think of it as CIGAR SHOP®. You’re looking for a pleasant experience. I’ll cover what to do if you’re on the road and have to settle – that comes a little later.
If one Googles “cigar shop” one will get all sorts of establishments advertising themselves as such when, in reality, they are not. I once looked up a shop at a beach resort. I drove to it and only then discovered it was a discount cigarette outlet in a scummier part of town. I left and did without. I have tips below on avoiding that mistake.
A good shop will sell cigars and pipe tobacco and little else. A few sell a limited selection of high-end “natural” cigarettes. Most of the better shops completely prohibit cigarette smoking for aroma issues.
Look out for hookahs. Again, I have been in fine shops that have offered a small selection of hookahs for sale. However, if the pipes are out and smoking, that is a bad sign. Most establishments will not allow hookahs and the … uh … hookah people associated with them.
Similarly, a good shop will forbid the sale or use of glass pipes, bongs, and other narcotic -esque paraphernalia. If you’re looking for a head shop, find one. Or, just hang out on the street and meet a local dealer. Don’t bother the smokers.
Pool tables also have no place around cigars. One might fit in a back room but usually not. The tables, along with darts, video and gambling games attract a certain element. How shall I put this? They attract trash. There. Avoid them. Sure, you might enjoy darts and such at the sports pub but the same does not belong around a tobacconist.
Loud, boisterous, and obnoxious people/crowds can ruin the cigar experience. At a special event or on a very busy night the volume may be up; it should not be the norm. If you can’t plainly speak with and understand the fellow sitting next to you, something is wrong.
It’s also wrong to have children in a cigar shop. I don’t mean having them stand by the door while you run in the humidor, only to leave in a minute. I once went to a shop and bought a few sticks. I was about to light up when the shop-keep asked me not to as her young daughter was present. A little girl was coloring in the smoking lounge. I left.
The afore-mentioned trash will sometimes amble in pushing a baby carriage or shepherding toddlers. This is awkward and inappropriate. The same types are usually asking for chemicals to beat drug tests, glass pipes, or weed. The employees of a good shop will soon ask them to leave. If people like that are humored, you may be in the wrong place.
Smoking Not Allowed?
I’ve been in a few places with a great selection and none of the problems listed above where one cannot light up. Most of these stores are in places like malls that prohibit smoking in general. It’s okay to purchase from these and then leave. There’s no reason to stay.
There are some shops which have acquiesced to smoking bans. There is an entire city in my neck of the woods where all smoking is prohibited. The local cigar shops did nothing to prevent the ban. None of the owners even bothered showing up at the government planning meetings. They did that to themselves. There is no reason to support such places.
Worst of all are the shops where the owner just doesn’t want smoking inside. This seems oxymoronic and it is. Do not patronize these idiots.
So, where does one find a good shop? There is trial and error, which will eventually lead to happy success. One can always consult with a veteran. Then there’s the internet:
The International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR) is to cigars what the NRA or the SAF is to firearms. They maintain a website of preferred retailers at this website. A few easy clicks and one has access to hundreds of better shops from sea to smoking sea. You can find a shop near you, wherever you are.
Things to Look For
A good location. A shop should be accessible and offer ample parking. It should not be in a part of town where patrons are at risk of mugging.
Selection. Everyone has a favorite stick or two. Sometimes one can’t find them. However, a good shop should have enough alternatives to please the average smoker. These, of course, must be kept properly humidified and stored at the proper temperature.
Staff. The people who work in a shop should be (must be) friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable.
Lounge. The hallmark of a great shop is its lounge or lounges. These should feature comfortable seats and plenty of ashtrays, lighters, and cutters. Some places even offer mini conference centers for working smokers (like writers). All good shops have wi-fi. They also have a system that will clear most of the smoke out while maintaining air conditioning.
Cigar Bars. Cigar bars are extremely popular. Some offer only beer and wine while others have full bars. Take advantage of this perk responsibly.
Television. I hate TV in general but most shops have them. They are not always on (good thing for me). However, when they are on, there is a protocol for what’s playing. The acceptable programming is (in no particular order): news, business news, sports (golf first unless it’s football season). If a movie is aired it should be the equivalent of an old John Wayne movie. Do not accept Dr. Phil, Oprah, or any unmanly programming.
Hours. These vary greatly. Traditional stores and those in smaller markets often are open 10 AM – 6 or 8 PM on weekdays. Bigger shops and those with bars are frequently open past midnight. Some open extra early for the coffee crowd.
Women. Cigar shops are by and large the realm of men. That said, many shops employ ladies and many women enjoy cigars. Not that you really have a choice but try to find company like this:
Davidoff Tampa – literally all of my advice rolled together.
Alternatives for the Road or to Get By
Sometimes there are no proper shops around. Then there are the times the shops are closed. There are still places you can find cigars:
Liquor stores. These usually have limited but decent selections. Some even have humidors.
Drug Stores. Behind the front counter there should be a few smokes. You will have to screen these for quality. It is an option.
Grocery Stores. Some carry a few cigars and some of those are pretty good. Many carry individual humidity controlled sticks. Look around the customer service desk.
Gas Stations. Usually these are dead ends. However, some stations in trendy or high-end vacation areas may carry cigars. the same goes for old-fashioned news stands (if you can find them).
This is a touchy subject in cigar-land but, hey, I’m a touchy guy. Don’t use these at the expense of your local shop, especially if you have a good one. Online retailers are based in better tax jurisdictions and thus can offer lower prices. These might come in handy if you need to make a large purchase.
One can also go online guilt-free when there isn’t a quality shop in your area or if you need something your shop doesn’t stock. For this option I recommend my friends at Cigars City.
To recap: Avoid the trash and the druggies. Seek out quality selection and good company in a comfortable environment. No matter where you are, the cigars are probably right around the corner.
Updated January 5, 2017: From The Tampa Humidor!