Dad was in town the other weekend, and he wanted to watch the Michigan-Michigan State basketball game. He lives in East Lansing, so he's a Spartans fan. His wife planned to spend her afternoon at Menopause the Musical, so I figured we should spend ours at a guy kind of place. We went to Cigar King, in Skokie.
The smoke was as heavy as August haze. Part sports bar, part gentlemen's club, part hunting lodge, part humidor, Cigar King is four manly venues packed into a few hundred square feet. Old men shot pool near the front door. Dead animals--a moose, a buffalo, a marlin--stared from the walls, along with framed portraits of famed smokers: Churchill, Castro, Caray, Kup. A big-screen TV faced an audience of leather armchairs. If you looked close enough, you could see men sunk deep in the cushions, although sometimes the only way to tell was to look for the smoke or the copy of Robb Report on the arm.
We bought H. Upmanns--Dominican coronas in metal screw-top tubes. Dad sat down and lit up while I chatted with the man in the next armchair. His name was Chuck Heisinger, and he was gripping an Excalibur while looking over an application for a sailboat slip. Heisinger smokes at Cigar King several times a week, particularly during the winter. "There's no smoking in the house, and it's too cold to smoke in the yard," he said. "It's a nice time to relax. I enjoy the taste of a cigar, and it's a little bit of cave time."
Cigar King isn't just a sanctuary for smokers who've been chased out of the house. Last year the village of Skokie followed the example of Mrs. Heisinger and banned smoking in all public places, except for bars, bowling alleys, and retail tobacco stores. Come July, bars will be smoke free as well, unless they erect impermeable walls to contain smokers. Last month Jack's Restaurant ended its popular late-night hours because insomniac smokers are now going out to eat in Niles and Chicago. Cigar King may soon be the last place to light up in Skokie.
"I thought they were getting damn close to banning smoking in here," Heisinger said. "That would have been a rum rebellion. If this place were in jeopardy, I'd have a real problem. It's really an oasis."
Skokie's ban will be good for Cigar King, says manager Reginald Smith. "It'll only increase our business, because smokers will want to go where they can smoke," Smith says. "If you used to take your cigar to a bar, you'll stay here, and you'll buy more."
Not that business has ever really been bad. In the ten years since it opened, though tobacco has been condemned by 60 Minutes, by state's attorneys general, and even by George Will, who dubbed the habit "declasse," Cigar King has sold more than two million stogies through its retail outlets (there's another store in Scottsdale, Arizona) and via its Web site, cigarking.com. Smokers have been pushed out onto sidewalks, forced to go cold turkey on transatlantic flights. But here they find acceptance among their own kind. On Friday nights a circle of pipe smokers puffs away. In the back there's a room full of personalized humidors for regulars who can't keep cigars in the house. They come by to visit their cigars, and they hang out for hours.
You'd have to live 110 years to smoke your way through the inventory at Cigar King, although you'd probably die of mouth cancer first. There are 400,000 sticks on the premises. Cigars of every caliber--presidente, Churchill, torpedo, corona, robusto. Every length--from cigarillos to 11-inch monsters that are definitely more than just a cigar. Every price--you can't get a good 5-cent cigar, but a Sportsman is only 99 cents, while at the other extreme a Davidoff goes for $20. Every nationality--Dominicans, Nicaraguans, and even Cubans, rolled before Castro came to power and stored for the last 50 years in American warehouses.
"As soon as that embargo ends, every one of the cigars in the humidor goes out and all the Cubans go in," says store clerk Larry Loeser. "It'll be like Krispy Kreme. We'll have to put up a neon sign: 'The Cubans are here.'"
On the big screen, the Knicks were playing the Timberwolves. Dad asked a clerk behind the counter to change the channel to the Michigan game. He did, and no one complained. Comfy chairs and nicotine make for a placid crowd. Dad was the only smoker shouting at the screen.
"People sit down here and they get stoned," Loeser says. "That's why you don't get people jumping up and down."
The most excitable men in the store that day were Craig Hanson and his friend Ryan Majer, who were inspecting home humidors. The more expensive ones had hygrometers embedded in their lids.
"This place is unbelievable," said Hanson, who's single and planning to open a driving range in Maywood. "There's nothing here that guys wouldn't like. This is like the men's store. Women, they go to Neiman Marcus."
I'm not a smoker, so at one point during the afternoon I had to go stand outside next to the wooden Indian to get some fresh air. I left feeling queasy. Dad only smokes three or four cigars a year, so I think he was a little buzzed too. On the way home he slammed his car into a center divider, bursting two tires. We had to wait an hour in the cold for AAA.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephen J. Serio.