October 2008

The Tobacconist

Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: John Brackett

Taft Parker got into the cigar business for two reasons. First one: “I had to do something to get them wholesale,” he said, grinning. Parker has been a cigar smoker for a long time. “I’ve been around tobacco, worked in tobacco, all my life. I’ve planted it, I’ve picked it, I’ve suckered it, strung it up, dried it. But the best thing is smoking it and selling it,” the owner of The Smoke Stack said, the grin getting broader.

The second reason: a passion for the entire cigar culture. That passion shows up in the shop. Beautiful display cabinets, designed by Parker and built by a friend, run along one side of the shop. Opposite is a glassed-in 3,000 plus cubic foot humidor where regular patrons pop in, select a few of their favorite brand on their own, and either enjoy a smoke in what could easily pass for a study in a private home, or head out with a handful of hand-rolled Arturo Fuente or La Flor Dominica or Carlos Torano. All of the cigars at The Smoke Stack are premium cigars, hand rolled.

The “regular” could be a visitor from Pennsylvania or a house painter on Hilton Head. “They are from all walks, from window washers to bankers, judges,” Parker said. Patrons are both men and women. “You’d be surprised how many women enjoy a good cigar,” he explained. And the same visitors come back year after year. “They stop by the store even before they check in,” Parker said.

From the way Smoke Stack is arranged, designed and decorated, Parker is not only a cigar smoker and cigar merchant, he is a true tobacconist, a person noted for expertise in the trade. Just above the wide screen television that patrons watch while enjoying their favorite cigar, is an elegant, reverse cut crystal mirror, simply decorated with the word, “CIGAR” etched in. “It’s from a bar in Boston from 1919,” Parker explained. “To everyone else it’s just a mirror. To me, it’s the centerpiece of my store.”

The walls in the Smoke Stack are decorated with memorabilia of that cigar culture Parker loves. One features Edgar G. Robinson, touting his favorite brand. There is an old newspaper clipping that features a Cuban baseball team from the 1950-51—“Winter Season,” when Cuban cigars were still thought to be the finest and still legally available to Americans. There is also a framed “vista” and cigar bands, showing off the stone lithography found on older cigar boxes. A “vista” is the paper or tissue inside the box of cigars that duplicates the outside top of the box. Parker collects them. “They’re from the 18 and 1900s,” he said, pointing out a “vista” from a box of cigars created for Puccini (as in La Bohème, Tosca, and Madam Butterfly). He points out another featuring the logotype of a rather famous shipping company, the White Star Line (i.e., the Titanic). “I love history,” he said.

Because he is a tobacconist, he must know his product better than most. He admitted, at the beginning, there was a learning curve. “I was fortunate enough to have a friend in the business named Alphonse Meyer. He was General Cigar’s [one of the main players] tobacco buyer for 50 years. He was the most knowledgeable man I’ve ever met as far as tobacco goes. I was very fortunate to have him as a friend,” Parker said. The relationship obviously paid off. One of Parker’s “regulars” brings in cigars from around the world and tests Parker’s knowledge of what blends of tobacco are used in that particular brand. The “regular” says, somewhat mystified, “He’s never missed.”

Cigars are all about blends of different tobaccos from all over the world. “It’s very much like wines,” Parker explained. “That’s why cigars and wines pair very well together. Both are organic and are grown in very similar soils. They take on the content of the soil.” Parker’s cigars are also free of any chemical enhancements, unlike cigarettes. Parker does not like to be lumped with cigarettes. “I’ve never smoked one in my life,” he said.

On occasion, Parker and a group of cigar aficionados will take a trip down to the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Honduras, the three main exporters of cigars. They visit one of the major companies there and learn about the cigar business, “from seed to box,” Parker said. While tobacco is still grown on small farms in those countries, there has been a consolidation in the industry. “The major companies have their own farms now. They provide workers with housing, education and medical services, and they are very proud to show them off to visitors. It is a very unique experience,” Parker explained.

On other occasions, Parker will have a “rolling event.” He’ll invite a professional cigar roller up to show how cigars are made. “We’re having one this weekend at a private golf club,” he said.

The tobacconist has a quiz: Where is the most expensive tobacco grown? The answer surprises: Connecticut! It seems the leaf grown there is highly valued as a wrapper, the outer layer, for premium cigars.

Back to the walls of The Smoke Stack. There are more stories. There is an autographed photo of coach Don Shula, and a schedule for the Miami Dolphins. Parker, it turns out, is a season ticket holder. Parker’s uncle, who raised him, lived four houses down from the Shula family. “We’ve known them for a long time,” Parker said.

Parker’s full name is Eston Taft Parker II. He was named after his grandfather, who was born in 1909, the year William Howard Taft became the 27th president of the United States. “I have the best son on earth, but I burdened him with my name: Eston Taft Parker III,” Parker II said.

When President Taft took office, he brought his cigars with him. Coincidence?

The Smoke Stack is open 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., seven days a week. On Friday and Saturday nights, Parker keeps the shop open much later. He also has a program called “Cigars for Soldiers.” For every cigar one of his customers buys to send to a soldier, The Smoke Stack matches it. The Smoke Stack is located at Suite 222, Park Plaza.

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