Solving the World’s Problems, One Cigar at a Time
Cigars may well be the second most written about pleasure in life. A cigar is a product that certainly brings pleasure to an eclectic clientele who spend part of their Saturday mornings at B&B Tobacconists at Merrimon Avenue in Asheville.
B&B occupies an old frame house with a suitably wide front porch. The aroma of good pipe and cigar tobacco fills the air as you climb the wooden steps. You are welcomed by three gentlemen sitting on the porch enjoying their morning cigars. Inside there are other gentlemen seated in a window box in the main sales area. Two more are in a separate room watching and discussing the then-current Ryder Cup golf championship. Others, mostly writers and artists as it turns out, are having a conversation in an adjacent sitting area.
The gentlemen are resplendent in their deep leather chairs, gently wearing the good-feeling smoke emanating from their fine cigars. Their conversation starts well beyond shallowness of politics and soars into the origins of cigars, the colors of life, their individual lives and their challenges. One observes that the atmosphere within B&B, although shrouded in smoke, is in many ways equivalent to that of the old barber shop. Men (generally) come in, make a purchase, then join in or listen to whatever topic is being discussed.
Most of the clientele are older. One hears the barber shop analogy and comments, “and in both cases you go home with no hair.”
The simple pleasure of the tobacco provides an ever moving mosaic of changing shapes and textures for these quiet moments. Smokers savoring the taste, consider the issues and contemplate the patterns in the smoke.
It’s not a particularly high testosterone environment. There is no alcohol and very little screaming and yelling about sports.
The focus is on the tobacco, and on the conversations.
Sculptor Robert Winkler enjoys his time with his cigar. It’s a way to wind down. For screenwriter and WCU associate professor Terry Curtis Fox, it is a relaxing place to use his iPad and work on his next project.
B&B Tobacconists is owned by David Barnes, a retired State Bureau of Investigation agent. Until August, his partner was Mike Booher. Booher is a professional photographer, also now retired. He has contributed to National Geographic and was the only photographer allowed full access to document the move of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. His work can most famously be found in the book, Out of Harm’s Way.
The shop was founded by David Barnes’ father, Bruce Barnes. Its original intent was exactly what it has become today – a quiet retreat where customers could find excellent choices in tobaccos – and remain to enjoy them in good company. Bruce Barnes passed away in 1991. With Booher’s retirement, David Barnes is now the sole proprietor.
B&B is not a cigarette store. It does not offer cigarettes and none of the smokers present during our visit use them. Winkler confessed that he had been a three pack a day smoker many years ago, but now limited himself to “four or five” good cigars a week.
B&B is also a pipe shop. Barnes prefers a pipe and in a side room, a young man and woman are learning about pipes and pipe tobacco. The shop has one wall dedicated to pipes and a second wall for the house favorite pipe tobacco blends.
Barnes goes about his shop business with an old Vicar’s Pipe in hand. The Vicar’s pipe style came to being in England in the 16th century when the parish Vicar would stand at the door after services, holding his pipe in anticipation of donations from the congregation. The legend doesn’t report the presence of holy smoke when he received a particularly generous offering, but one could only imagine.
Times have changed even in England. Today’s vicars stand no chance of such immortality.
The Reverend Anthony Carr, of East Peckham, recently walked into a police station in Tonbridge, Kent, lit his pipe in violation of the town’s no-smoking ordinance, and asked to be arrested. His protest was against the erosion of civil liberties in general and the pipe was simply a convenient conduit to help make his point.
Unfortunately, or possibly fortunately for the vicar, the Tonbridge police refused to make the arrest. They said it was an environmental issue and out of their jurisdiction.
There are no such niceties in North Carolina. Workplace smoking was banned in 2009. That included restaurants, bars and private offices. In 2010 the city of Asheville went one step further and banned smoking on all public property including parks, greenways and the sidewalks surrounding them. Sales of beanbag ashtrays, it is reported, are now exceeded by those of lava lamps.
For the uninitiated we should point out that there are fundamental differences between smoking pipes and cigars, and cigarettes. Cigarette smokers inhale the smoke into their lungs. The links between such inhalation and lung cancer and multiple other diseases are irrefutable.
Pipe and cigar smoke is generally not inhaled. The American Cancer Society says the links between them and various cancers are less well established but there are concerns. There is no reason to dispute the science. But there is more to the story.
The ACS also reports that, “How you smoke and how much you smoke are both important. Cigar smokers may spend an hour smoking one large cigar that can contain as much tobacco as a pack of cigarettes. Smoking more cigars each day or inhaling cigar smoke leads to more exposure and higher risks. The health risks linked to occasional cigar smoking (less than daily) are less clear.”
So there you have it. To eliminate the risk of tobacco-caused cancer you have to stay away from it completely. The same could be said of avoiding automobile racing accidents, skydiving or having babies. There are certain human activities that are pleasurable, that give high levels of satisfaction, but are inherently risky. Achieving the proper balance between risk and reward is one of life’s challenges.
As for inhaling, there are physical reasons it normally is not done. Cigarettes are made from light tobaccos that are blended, shredded, flavored with additives ranging from banana oil to vanilla, then loosely packed inside a paper tube. In most cases, a filter is also added. The resultant smoke is relatively thin, cool and filled with unknown chemicals that the tobacco companies do not want to disclose.
Cigars are very different. The tobacco is dark, densely packed and wrapped in yet another tobacco leaf. The tobacco is stemmed but not shredded. The smoke is dense and relatively hot compared to cigarettes. It also is very flavorful. Inhaling adds nothing but discomfort.
B&B Tobacconists, as noted, doesn’t sell or encourage the use of cigarettes. The pipe and cigar markets are different. The smokers may come from different walks of life but they share an appreciation of fine tobacco. Taken in moderation.
Another item you consider when you talk about cigars is the subject of Cuban cigars. Many cigar aficionados consider them the Holy Grail of the cigar art. If you can get your mind past the obligatory political statements regarding communism in general, the Castro dictatorship, Soviet nuclear missiles, various assassinations and assassination attempts, Angola, Ché and Bolivia, MiGs shooting down American civilian aircraft, and the American embargo on all things Cuban, then you’ll get near-unanimity that, despite everything, Cuban cigars remain the best in the world.
“It’s a unique combination of the soil, the seeds and the weather,” Winkler says. “You don’t get the same combination, or taste, anywhere else.”
Winkler’s comment is backed up by 50 years of largely unsuccessful efforts to duplicate the Cuban taste. Seeds have been smuggled to the Dominican Republic and to several Central American countries including tobacco-rich Nicaragua. In fact, of all the non-Cuban locations, Nicaragua’s dark, rich soil may be the closest approximation to Cuba’s.
“Nicaraguans are stronger,” Fox says. “Their taste is distinctive.” Fox suggests certain Casa Magna Nicaraguan cigars are among those worthy of a try. “They’re mid-bodied with lots of flavor,” he says. Cigar Aficionado magazine rated the Casa Magna Robusto as the world’s top cigar in 2008. Following in that tradition, the brand’s Colorado Diadema was picked as one of the top 25 (10th) cigars of 2011.
Fox and Winkler know what they’re talking about, and so does former B&B partner Booher. Whether he’s giving advice on cigars or showing a writer how to adjust his $600 flash attachment, Booher knows his business. And he knows the B&B history.
“David’s dad, Bruce, started the shop and the focus was always on fine cigars, pipes and pipe tobacco. He sold Alpha pipes to start with. Those were pretty rare but Bruce knew a wholesaler who lived in the area and he was able to get them. He added some other brands, Savinelli and Peterson, and the pipe business took off.”
Bruce died in 1991. David took over the store two years later. A natural division of responsibilities led David into managing the pipe and pipe tobacco business, while Mike focused on cigars until his recent retirement.
“I don’t know why I retired, really,” he says. “I love being here on Saturdays, talking with the guys enjoying a good cigar.”
De Musset would have loved B&B, It seems to be more of a gathering place for camaraderie and conversation than a business. There is no eagle-eyed clerk behind the counter. David, and still, Mike, are as liable to be deep in conversation in one of the many small smoking rooms as they are to be at the cash register. One might think that is still their abiding interest.
Fox, who lives downtown, says he appreciates B&B because of that togetherness.
“Look,” he says. “I leave my iPad here and go out, walk around and don’t even think about it. Nobody’s going to take it. No one’s going to disturb you or what you’re doing.”
While Winkler feels B&B gives him down time from the stress of his sculpture projects, Fox finds creativity and fresh ideas when he is there, enjoying his cigar. His screenplay and production credits are extensive. They include the Lonesome Dove TV series and serving as Story Editor for the Hill Street Blues. In his career he has produced screenplays for dozens of other TV series and movies. His work at Western Carolina introduces students to the art of screenplay writing and results in a completed screenplay at the end of his series of courses.
Winkler is one of the nation’s leading sculptors. His recent one-man exhibits include Queens University in Charlotte in 2011. He has exhibited in galleries including Asheville’s Blue Spiral 1, the Unison Sculpture Park in New Palz, New York, and in the permanent collection at the Creative Arts Guild in Dalton, Georgia. He also has served as Curator for many sculpture exhibits including the RiverSculpture Festival in Asheville (which he and his wife, Arlene, founded. Winkler’s website (http://robertwinklersculpture.com) says he works to produce “Graceful, gravity-challenging forms that reach in unexpected directions.”
Winkler says he came to Asheville because it was recommended to him at a time when “The noise in my head is louder than the noise in the street, it’s time to leave.”
“I was going to move to Burgundy (France). Arlene and I were going to start a bed and breakfast. Instead we came to Asheville and just fell in love with it. Most US cities look like the same polo shirt. Asheville doesn’t. The mountains are special.”
David Barnes feels the same way. “After I retired I really couldn’t wait to get over here and get to work. Mike and my Mom encouraged me, and Mike has just been the best friend you could imagine. I’m 63 now and I think the shop is going to make it long past the day I finally retire again. We have some younger people coming in.”
Finally, Barnes points back to the Surgeon General’s report on smoking, vintage 1964. That was the beginning of public health focus on the dangers of nicotine, tars and other tobacco related chemicals. It led to the first warning labels on cigarette packs (1966) and the Surgeon General warnings on the same labels in 1970. Since then the associations have become even stronger leading to the current debate over graphic images being required (overturned by a court) in 2012.
“We don’t carry cigarettes, we don’t encourage cigarettes and we don’t smoke cigarettes at B&B,” he says. “It’s a totally different way of smoking that we don’t endorse in any way.”
What hasn’t been widely reported is the reported possible benefits of tobacco and nicotine usage. Moderate smoking (cigars, pipes are a good example) was credited in 1991 by the British Medical Journal with slowing the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease in same-family members by an average of 4.17 years. Psychopharmacology supported that study in 1992, as did Neuroepidemiology in 1994.
Barnes doesn’t hang his hat on any of those studies. He simply runs a business that is legal and unique in the area. It provides a location and atmosphere where gentlemen, and ladies, may enjoy a great pipe or cigar, good conversation and an environment that is not judgmental about their decision to use tobacco.
As Kipling said, “… a good cigar is a smoke.” You’ll have to look the rest of it up yourself.
Location: 377 Merrimon Ave. Hours: M-T-W: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Thurs-Fri 10 – 8:30. Sat. 10 – 4. Closed Sundays.