Double-bladed, surgical steel guillotine cutter in hand, a fellow in a Hawaiian shirt slices off a little less than a quarter of an inch, and the cap falls to the floor. It’s a clean, decisive cut; the operation is a success, and the patient — Arturo Fuente, by name — is ready to go up in smoke, courtesy of a 2000-degree torch lighter. It’s 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in the lounge at Liberty Tobacco, a shelter for “battered men,” of sorts — a place where gents take refuge from wives and work, hiding out amid glorious shrouds that emanate from robustos, perfectos, and countless other configurations. But (almost) no one ever inhales.
Smoking even a small cigar to the nub takes time; moreover, it’s not always easy to find a copacetic place — hell, even a passable venue — to light up in San Diego. What with outdoor smoking bans and petulant spouses, there’s a bit of planning involved.
But Draconian laws and social opprobrium are no deterrent — cigar lovers are a determined, feisty lot, hard to “snuff out.” I must confess to bias: I love cigars and will continue to smoke them, the surgeon general be damned. Cigar smoking is not my only vice, but if I were inclined to hide any of my “bad” habits, it would be the most difficult to conceal, a difficulty understood by anyone who’s ever fired one up. Thus, in a generally cigar-unfriendly society (with San Diego probably as unfriendly as any large American city save for Salt Lake City), a key question arises: Where the hell can one relax, openly and without shame, with others who share this “vice”?
San Diego doesn’t have a “garment district” or a “jewelry district.” It doesn’t really have a “cigar district” either — few if any American cities do — but Kearny Mesa probably comes as close as any part of town. Drab and prosaic as it may be, far off any well-beaten tourist path, this landscape of mini-malls and gas stations has just about all the components of the USDA-prescribed (or is that “proscribed”?) “vice pyramid.” It’s got strip clubs, porno book stores, and greasy burger joints (an Original Tommy’s, no less) — as well as two full-on, no-excuses smoke shops replete with lounges. If San Diego has a “Stogie Central,” this neighborhood might be it, but, in truth, the local cigar scene is wherever a guy (or rarely, a gal) sits, stands, or reclines in smoky repose, nursing a rolled bunch of dried, aged leaves.
The cigar lounge is a relatively new fixture in San Diego County; it’s a venue that benefits from both governmental and spousal forces. California laws and local ordinances (banning smoking in bars, restaurants, and even beaches) — in conjunction with wives who’d rather smell a cloying scented candle (or a decomposing cat, for that matter) than the olfactory ambrosia that is a good cigar — make lounges a viable hideaway. One might describe the typical cigar lounge as a “men’s club”; while women are not prohibited from entering — and indeed, antidiscrimination laws would kick in something fierce if that were to occur — there aren’t a lot of broads around.
I chatted with Sam Gabriel, the hospitable owner of Cigars Vera Cruz, a smoke shop/lounge in San Marcos, whose mall location — near a Nordstrom Rack and other distaff magnets — gives cigar smokers a pleasurable interlude while avoiding the painful tedium of watching their wives try on clothes. Sam told me most of his customers are indeed men, skewed toward the age 25–45 cohort with “good incomes.” When I asked him what draws smokers to the lounge, he replied that — beyond escaping wifely censure and the weather-related vagaries of outdoor smoking — “a lot of guys come here for the social aspect.” The place is reminiscent of an old-style steakhouse, a lot of dark wood and leather; there’s espresso brewing and a wine and beer license awaiting approval by state bureaucrats. Sam told me that his goal was to create an ultracomfortable, luxurious spot where cigar smokers could relax. But the lounge is more than an adjunct to the shop — it’s vital to keeping the whole operation afloat even as cigar smokers turn increasingly to the Internet.
Back at Liberty, owner Charlie Hennegan, regarded in many (smoke-filled) circles as one of San Diego’s certified cigar mega-mavens, is guiding a novice smoker in the at first daunting business of selecting a good stick. Regulars filter in and out — Charlie knows them all by name. In the lounge, five or six guys, who range from perhaps 30 to 60 in age, tend to their favorite smokes in front of a wide-screen TV with the news on.
This is a lazy-afternoon type of place — no booze or food, just cigars and casual banter. Charlie says it’s his version of the “old-fashioned East Coast neighborhood smoke shop.”
I asked him about Liberty’s location, which, being next door to an Ethan Allen furniture store, seems to parallel that of Cigars Vera Cruz. Charlie says it’s copacetic. “Tell your wife, ‘Here’s the credit card, honey — see you in six or eight hours.’ ” The juxtaposition is amusing: just a few feet from the lazy cloud-drift of burnt tobacco, a predominately distaff clientele salivates over high-priced bedroom sets and tasteful couches, never contemplating that — should their vigilance flag — the coveted woods and precious fabrics might someday be permeated with spent cigar smoke.
In an industry buffeted by the whims of fashion — booms and busts — as well as the unrelenting fiscal assaults by bureaucrats, Charlie is a stalwart and a stayer; he’s been selling cigars for a long time. He knows a lot about these rolled-up leaves, and if you ask, he can tell you everything you’d want to know about cigars. Like any veteran tobacconist, he’s adept at explaining arcane terms like “ring gauge” (the way a cigar’s diameter is measured, in 1/64th-inch increments), ligero (the type of leaf that gives a cigar most of its kick), and so on.