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Business still smoking for purveyors of fine tobacco in state

With a sluggish economy and record high prices for gas and groceries taking a big bite out of personal budgets, one might assume that cigar and pipe smokers are snuffing out these “luxury” items. And more and more cities are enacting smoking bans, an additional challenge for tobacconists.

However, several purveyors of fine tobacco products in Mississippi report sales are good, even up compared to last year.

Habana Smoke Shoppe in Jackson is one of those. When Ralph Foster, owner of Habana, was asked why sales were so robust considering the challenging environment, he shrugged and said, “It’s just the nature of the cigar business.”

Lighting up

Foster says Habana is having one of its best years ever. Sales are up approximately 10% over last year, and the store on Interstate 55 continues to see new customers.

He said it seems more people are switching from cigarettes to cigars, and he is seeing more and more women in his store.

Foster said the most popular cigar brands in his shop are Davidoff (Habana is Mississippi’s only Davidoff certified dealer), Macaundo, Gurhka, Rocky Patel and Perdomo.

Foster said he has seen no apparent affect from the faltering economy. Not only is business good, prices are not spiraling up like groceries or gasoline.

Piping hot

Sales are not the only thing going well at Habana. Club Habana, a private club located next door to the shop that provides flat-panel TVs, billiards, poker tables and more, is sold out.

Habana once also sold pipes, but discontinued that business. This was The Country Squire’s gain. Located in Jackson on Lakeland Avenue, The Country Squire, owned by Gwen Reeves, took up Habana’s pipe line of business.

Not surprisingly, Reeves said pipe sales are way up at The Country Squire, with the most popular being briar pipes, made from the heath tree. When asked for her hottest seller, Reeves said pipe preferences vary from person to person and personality to personality, though she did say the Church Warden line was very popular.

“We have found that out-going, type-A personalities like straight pipes, while those who are more introspective, who like to read and meditate, prefer bent pipes,” she said. “I don’t know why. But we sell a lot of pipes at Christmas, and we use this method to sell. We have very few returns.”

Reeves said she suspects that high gas prices are affecting customers, but is not sure to what extent. However, The Country Squire does hold a large imported inventory. She said the strength of the dollar against the Euro is of concern to her and affects prices and costs.

Huffing and puffing

Not all fine tobacconists in Mississippi are hearing a lot of cash registers ringing. Charlie Dimino, owner of Cigar Charlie in West Point, said his sales have slowed.

“People are putting their cigar money in the gas tank,” he said.

Dimino did say his pipe sales are up, “but not setting the woods on fire — my pipe business is not very significant.”

He said Cigar Charlie, located on Highway 45, gets a lot of business from travelers, offsetting the lack of a large base of local prospective customers. Dimino said he is not surprised Habana and The Country Squire are doing well considering the healthy demographics of the metro Jackson.

Cigar Charlie, opened in 1999, sells cigars and pipes, as well as snuff, oil lamps, candles and various other products. He hopes a turn in the economy will give his business a boost in the near future.

One thing Dimino has not been affected by is smoking bans. West Point currently has no such ordinance, though other North Mississippi cities have enacted such legislation. But, it is affecting Jackson-area tobacconists.

Habana, which also offers lighters, humidors and other cigar accessories, once offered the popular Cigars Under the Stars events, which provided live music and, of course, cigars at changing venues on a monthly basis. However, due to the area’s smoking bans, they have been discontinued.

Tobacconists are not taking this sitting down, and continue to fight against anti-smoking ordinances and legislation. The International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR), based in Columbus, Ga., has as members more than 350 manufacturers, distributors and service providers and in excess of 2,000 retail stores across the U.S. (Six of these are in Mississippi — Habana, The Country Squire, The Epitome in Biloxi, Humidor-World’s Finest Cigars in Brandon, Huck’s Cove Inc. in Gautier and The Smokestack in West Point.)

The IPCPR’s website (www.rtda.org) offers a Legislative Action Center, which tracks anti-smoking bills on the state and national levels, along with media contacts, election information and candidates and “Capitol Hill Basics.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at wally.northway@msbusiness.com.

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