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Written by Andrew Shaw

Monday, 25 February 2008

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clubs and organizationsleisure and relaxation

All eyes in the Tobacconist of Greenwich store were on its owner, James Lacerra. It was after hours on a Thursday, and the man known as "Jimmy Cigars" was holding court with some his regulars as they talked about the presidential race and anything else on their mind.

The five other men in the store sat on dark, leather-upholstered sofas and chairs arranged in a circle all listen to Lacerra, a conservative Republican, opine about welfare and his dislike for John McCain. Lacerra, 65, reclined on a couch next to a throw pillow embroidered with the phrase, "If I cannot smoke cigars in heaven, then I shall not go." He was puffing on the remains of a Camel cigarette, the thin smoke from it swirling around the much thicker fumes of the stogies the other five men in the room had going. Ash trays were full everywhere, and the ceiling fan wasn't moving, which kept the smoke center stage.

A love of cigars is the common theme at the store on Havemeyer Place. The men who regularly meet there every Friday night, and most other nights for that matter, are of all types of backgrounds, including businessmen, service workers and professional athletes. It's a tight-knit, invite-only group they've dubbed the Friday Night Club, and you need five members' approval to get in.

Usually, about 20 men show up for the evening get-togethers, and they talk about everything possible using all types of language imaginable, "except when a woman shows up," Lacerra said. "Then we don't swear."

"If you come here and sit for a few days, you'll learn everything you need to learn," said Chris Biagi, 39, one of the members.

There's a lot of good-natured teasing, of course. Biagi gets hassled about biting his nails and cleaning out toilets for a living. Everyone gets it mercilessly about their weight and their wives.

"You have to have an extremely thick skin," said Demetrio Chila, 49, a former Darien police officer. He's been patronizing the store for about eight years, but was accepted as a club member about five years ago.

Although the club officially meets on Friday nights, most of the members can be spotted at the store on daily. Lacerra said it's because the guys are all afraid of their wives.

"Fifteen of them are hen-pecked. They gotta smoke outside at home," he said.

Allen Bohbot, the CEO of a children's animation company, confirmed this. "I gotta smoke two, three blocks away," he said.

The group used to make weekly trips to fancy restaurants, but rarely does now.

"You can't smoke anywhere no more," Lacerra said. Even in Lacerra's store, only club members can smoke, and only at certain times.The state's ban on smoking in public places has several exemptions, such as for private clubs and businesses with fewer than five employees.

It's a $10 fee if a member misses a Friday night, and that's no joke. Except in the event of death, bad weather like this past Friday, or Christmas, there's no excuse for missing, Lacerra said. When Bobby Bonilla, a former New York Met who was inducted into the club about eight years ago, was still playing baseball, he'd get charged for missing even if he was in season.

On Friday nights, everyone smokes and eats for free, using some of the cash stored up from years of $10 fees.

"On Fridays, you need a knife to cut the smoke in here," said Biagi, sending his own gray plume of smoke into the cloud hovering above the circle.

Although the club's been going on for more than two decades, the true history is in the store itself. The Tobacconist opened in the 1970s at what is now the CVS on Greenwich Avenue.

"I didn't know what I was doing then," Lacerra said of starting the store without any business knowledge. "I made $59 in business on my first day."

But he knocked a major cigar retailer out of town anyway, and has enjoyed steady business since, offering top-of-the-line cigars like Royal Jamaica, Davidoff and H. Upmanns that sit inside a humidor kept at 68 degrees with 73 percent humidity. There's also pipe tobacco in jars labeled "Belle Haven," "Indian Harbor" and "Round Hill."

Despite the health problems involved with smoking, Lacerra expects business to continue unchanged, expecially given that the Tobacconist is a second home to its members. Like home, they have to show up anyway, or they'll get an earful, he said.

"It's a dictatorship, like in Cuba," Lacerra joked. "What I say, goes."

Unlike Fidel Castro, Jimmy Cigars isn't planning to step down anytime soon.




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