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Written by Staff

Monday, 28 April 2008

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leisure and relaxationwine and spirits

Three cigar store Indians have the middle-aged white guys surrounded. The men are watching a giant flat-screen TV, where an old Clint Eastwood western is playing under the wooden Indians' implacable gaze.

The men have faces the consistency of putty, and shapes as varied as the torpedos, robustos and perfectos they're smoking. Every time Eastwood chews on his cheroot, the guys on the sofas at West Coast Cigars reach for their stogies and draw. Two air purifiers sit nearby like a pair of lungs, gasping for breath.

Cigar shops, forced to reshape themselves by anti-smoking ordinances over the past decade, have been transformed from cash-and-carry businesses to fellowships of the stogie. And with each passing year, that politically incorrect tribe of wooden Indians surrounds smokers whose ages, cultural backgrounds and genders grow more diverse.

Nearly 11 billion cigars were sold in this country last year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. And a 2006 report by the Department of Health and Human Services estimated the number of cigar smokers at 13.7 million - more than the populations of Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco combined.

As cigarette smokers have been forced out of virtually all California buildings - shifting from foot to foot in doorways as they suck down their guilty pleasures - cigar stores are thriving by becoming more social.

Cigar shops are the last best place to be with other like-minded lung cases and smoke your brains out. On the grounds of the state Capitol, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has his own tented cigar seraglio, but it pales next to such humidors of happiness in Silicon Valley as Club Havana, Mission Pipe Shop and Santana Row's leather-clad Cohiba Cigar Lounge.

On many afternoons, Matt Harrison can be found in the back room at Mission Pipe playing liar's dice. He gave up a decade-long cigarette habit several years ago and switched to cigars. Cigarettes are an addiction, he says.

"Cigars are a lifestyle. It makes you slow down and enjoy things . . . forces you to kick back and relax. Living here in Silicon Valley, you need to do that, or you'd go crazy."

Like many cigar converts, Harrison believes his new vice is healthier than his old one.

"Cigars are 100 percent natural, with no chemicals or other additives," he asserts. "A lot of people have left cigarettes and moved to cigars because they are better for you."

SURGEON GENERAL WARNING: Cigars are not a safe alternative to cigarettes. Cigar smoking can cause lung cancer and heart disease. Cigar smoking can cause cancers of the mouth and throat, even if you do not inhale.

Even that kind of serious buzzkill doesn't make cigar smokers pessimistic. Not when they're about to clip the tip from a new Hoyo de Monterrey double corona, whose flavor Cigar Aficionado magazine describes as "delivering woody, coffee notes" and a "slightly waxy finish."

The numerical ratings assigned to new tobacco creations by the magazine's influential editor-publisher, Marvin Shanken, make monthly "tastings" as much a staple of cigar stores as wine tastings in Napa Valley.

Reliable regulars

Sarah Peterson, who helped oversee a recent Gurkha tasting at Club Havana Premium Cigars in the El Paseo de Saratoga shopping center, considered the magazine her bible when she was learning to distinguish an Avo from a Rocky Patel.

Sandwiched between a Baskin-Robbins and a Lollipop Children's Boutique, Club Havana caters to a group of reliable regulars who arrive in the morning to pick up cigars before playing golf, and the layabouts who show up in the late afternoon to smoke and unwind after a grueling 18 holes.

"There are a lot of people who don't want their kids to know that they smoke, because they don't want to be a bad influence on them," says Peterson, a 21-year-old college student who picked up cigar smoking from her father. "They can come here and not have to worry about people judging them."

The older customers are often dropped off at the door by their wives, who generally linger there just long enough to pepper Peterson with questions.

"The wives always ask me, 'How can you stand it?' " she says. "They don't really approve of their husbands smoking."

Though it is far more common these days to see women smoking cigars, when Peterson plants a seven-inch Churchill in her mouth at work, she sometimes encounters resistance.

"Some people get offended," she says. "They're like, 'Don't smoke cigars. It's bad for you. You should have children someday!' Of course, they're usually buying cigars for themselves when they're telling me that."

The owner of Club Havana encourages Peterson to smoke in the shop so she can recommend the stock. However, at Mission Pipe on The Alameda, owner Donna Brown discourages the practice.

"It just seemed kind of strange to me to be helping customers with a big ol' cigar hanging out of your mouth," she says. "It would be like going to a restaurant where the waiters are eating a meal in front of you."

Last refuge

California law allows smoking inside if at least 85 percent of a business's sales are from tobacco products. That's how stores like Club Havana became the last refuge for non-inhaling hedonists such as Michael Pickels and Gary Grace of Campbell. On a recent afternoon, the two men were splayed across chairs watching "Juno" on the lounge's 47-inch TV while puffing contentedly on pipes.

"Most people have a kind of stigmatism with cigars," Grace explains. "But this is like a home away from home." Actually, because he has kids, this is nothing like his own home.

"Here, you can watch a movie and relax with no distractions," he says, "which I can't do at my house."

He certainly couldn't do it at Cohiba Lounge, the jewel-box-size store at Santana Row. A mysteriously intractable "problem with the ventilation system" forces customers who want to light up to stand on the crowded sidewalk out front.

The store is named for the private Cuban blend once exclusively supplied to Fidel Castro. On Feb. 6, 1962, President John F. Kennedy secured a supply of 1,000 cigars from the legendary Cuban tobacconist H. Upmann. The next day, Kennedy made it illegal to import Cuban cigars, imposing a trade embargo that remains to this day.

That was the beginning of the troubles that led to the need for smoking sanctuaries such as Club Havana. Pickels, a triathlon coach who competed in two summer Ironman events last year, won't even consider stepping to the curb in front of the Cohiba Lounge, viewing it as an infringement of his inalienable right to blast away at a Macanudo in peace.

"You get nothing but people going by and fake-coughing," he says, exhaling a great plume of smoke while jiggling his belly as he watches Juno get her pregnancy sonogram on the TV at Club Havana. "And the insinuation, of course, is that you're poisoning the environment."

Some people just can't smell a cigar's citrus bouquet when it's right under their noses.




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