Chatting Over Cigars
By Andrew Shaw
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 of 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 listening 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 of 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 wasnt moving, which kept the smoke centre 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 business men, service workers and professional athletes. Its a tight knit, invite only group theyve 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 dont swear. If you come here and sit for a few days, youll learn everything you need to learn, said Chris Biagi, 39, one of the members.
Theres a lot of good natured teasing, of course. Biagi gets hassled about biting his nails and cleaning out toilets for a living. Everyone gets teased mercilessly about their weight and their wives. You have to have extremely thick skin, said Demetrio Chila, 49, a former Darien police officer. Hes 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 night, most of the members can be spotted at the store daily. Lacerra said its because the guys are all afraid of their wives. Fifteen of them are henpecked. They gotta smoke outside at home, he said. Allen Bohbot, the CEO of a childrens 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 cant smoke anywhere no more, Lacerra said. Even in Lacerras store, only club members can smoke, and only at certain times. The states ban on smoking in public places has several exemptions, such as for privare clubs and businesses with fewer than five employees.
Its a $10 fee if a member misses a Friday night, and thats no joke. Except in the event of death, bad weather like this past Friday, or Christmas, theres no excuse for missong. When Bobby Bonilla, a former New York Met who was inducted into the club about eight years ago, was still playing baseball, hed get charged for missing an event 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 clubs been going 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 didnt 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 ever 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. Theres also pipe tobacco in jars labelled Belle Heaven, Indian Harbor and Round Hill.
Despite the health problems involved with smoking, Lacerra expects business to continue unchanged, especially given that the tobacconist is a second home to its members. Like home they have to show up anyway, or theyll get an earful, he said. Its a dictatorship, like in Cuba, Lacerra joked. What I say, goes. Unlike Fidel Castro, Jimmy Cigars isnt planning to step down anytime soon.