Liberty Tobacco’s smoking sanctuary
By LARRY WAGNER
Give me liberty, or give me …” well, maybe not death, but liberty is what smokers in the greater San Diego area seem to want. Liberty Tobacco, that is.
Established in 1975, and under the ownership of head honcho Charles Hennegan since 1985, Liberty Tobacco is the quintessential full-service cigar, pipe and tobacco shop. It’s as comfortable as an old pair of jeans, and the minute you set foot in the door, you feel as if you’ve come back to a familiar spot, to your happy place. The vibe is friendly, and the decor is eclectic, with walls full of photos, awards, and news clippings, and an assortment of furnishings ranging from leather sofas and chairs to barstools and an upholstered booth straight out of a delicatessen. And yet, somehow, they all work together in a harmony that perfectly reflects the easygoing attitude of the affable owner and his staff.
“We’re kind of like a family here,” says Hennegan. “Most of the customers have been coming for a number of years, and [they’ve known] all of the fellows who’ve worked here for quite some time. It’s very relaxed and friendly, even while we’re doing business with them.”
When the store evolved from its original 450-square-foot (you read that right!) location to its present spot a few hundred feet away, it was only the second store open for business in what is now a sprawling outdoor center anchored by an Ethan Allen furniture store, the mall’s original tenant. “[Our first space] was more of a cubbyhole, but we thought we were doing nicely. There wasn’t a whole lot going on around here in those days, so we were happy with the business we had,” says Hennegan.
The opportunity to nearly double in size, however, was too good to pass up. “We’d experienced a little bit of growth at that time, taking a little bigger bite of the apple, and this way we were able to build the walk-in humidor and have wall cabinets with pipes and lighters, etc.,” says Hennegan. “We needed room for those items, so we were glad to be able to expand.”
Within a few years, the neighboring space became available, and Liberty annexed an additional 1,200 square feet. (That’s about to increase again, as Liberty has recently taken over an additional 1,000 square feet of adjacent space.) By that time, the walk-in humidor had been outgrown, and the increased floor space allowed for the expansion of the cigar selection, utilizing floor-to-ceiling wall cabinets and a kiosk-style central display in the former retail space. The second half of the store is lined with showcases of pipes, lighters, humidors and all manner of accessories, with a center island cash wrap counter, plus the newly minted lounge.
Like many retail tobacconists of his generation, Hennegan was not born into the business. “I came out here from Connecticut in 1980,” he says. “I was in the printing business for a short time, and after that, I went to work at a savings and loan [association]. One of my buddies there was a pipe smoker, so we’d go to lunch, and then he’d swing by the store to pick up some pipe tobacco. My dad was always a pipe smoker and I thought I’d like to try that too. I became a regular customer, and then in the mid-’80s, we had the savings and loan disaster. Everybody was scrambling for a new career, a new job opportunity. One day I got talking to one of the fellows that owned the store, and he was kind of looking to do something else. I think within the course of one week I went from wearing a suit and tie [and] sitting behind a desk in the corporate world to this!”
And “this” was a business that continued to expand so that in 2009 Liberty Tobacco opened a second location in an upscale Del Mar neighborhood in northern San Diego County. Renowned for its racetrack, Del Mar and neighboring Rancho Santa Fe are wealthy suburban communities, providing Liberty with a new client base without detracting from the downtown location. Operated by store manager Dan Taiilac, the Del Mar location has limited seating on its main level but offers an upstairs lounge for an additional dozen smokers. While the product mix is largely the same as that of the original store, Del Mar will customize orders for its clientele.
Over the years, Hennegan has expanded Liberty’s business model to include a thriving wholesale business, supplying cigars and countertop display humidors to restaurants, golf courses and casinos. While nonsmoking laws have taken away some of the opportunities for selling cigars, Hennegan remains bullish on the wholesale side of the business.
“We do a nice business there, and we don’t encounter the problems associated with wholesale,” he says. “We offer very good service; we’ll take back damaged or defective cigars and replace them. We want our accounts to be happy, and they don’t abuse the privilege.”
Hennegan notes that wholesaling cigars to restaurants and clubs helps get the Liberty Tobacco name out to a wider audience. They’ll supply cutters and matches with the store name, and even provide Liberty-branded private-label cigars, all of which contribute to building the store’s presence to the public.
Part of the appeal of Liberty Tobacco is its egalitarian nature. The customer base is a mix of everyone from cops, contractors and construction workers to politicians, professionals and personalities, with nationally syndicated radio show host Dennis Prager serving as the narrator’s voice on the Liberty Tobacco website. There is also a large contingent of military personnel. San Diego is known for its military installations as much as it is for Sea World and the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park. With Camp Pendleton Marine Base to the north and Point Loma Naval Base at its southernmost extension, San Diego is as much a military town as it is a year-round tourist destination.
“A lot of the fellows from the ships in Point Loma on North Island have heard about Liberty Tobacco over the years and have become customers,” Hennegan says. “We’re also active with the U.S. Navy League, which helps military families. We support charity events and donate merchandise for raffles and auctions, and through that we’ve attracted quite a military community. From a personal standpoint, my brother had a very successful career in the Navy. He was the Captain of the USS Buffalo, rose to the rank of Admiral, and ended his career as a commandant on one of the bases on Point Loma, here in San Diego.”
The store’s walls are decorated with newspaper clippings, photographs and commendations, as well as donated military caps and souvenir programs from change-of-command and other ceremonies. “One of the guys in the Navy held his re-enlistment ceremony here,” says Hennegan. “They usually have them on the base, but they wanted to enjoy some cigars, so we set it up on the patio and everyone had a great time!”
There’s even a photo of two sailors from the nuclear-powered submarine USS Pogy at the North Pole with a sign indicating the mileage from the North Pole to Liberty Tobacco. Laughing, Hennegan proudly says, “Not even Coca-Cola or McDonald’s is advertised at the North Pole!”
Another not-always-common element of Liberty’s customer mix is the ever-growing coterie of pipe smokers. Liberty started out as a pipe and tobacco shop, expanding into cigars during the ’90s cigar craze and as the business grew. But Liberty Tobacco never marginalized pipe smokers during the cigar-centric boom years. They’ve always been an integral part of the mix there, mingling with cigar smokers in the various seating areas and often congregating around the high-top tables surrounded by bar stools adjacent to the pipe and tobacco section.
A large part of the success of the pipe business is attributable to department manager Cedric Williams. Originally a customer in the early ’80s, Williams displayed a natural affinity for pipes and tobacco. “One day Charlie approached me, through my interest as a customer, and asked if I would like to sit in maybe one or two days a week and handle the pipe end of the business,” says Williams. “And I said, ‘You know Charlie, that sounds like fun. I’m interested.’”
To this day, Williams runs the pipe and tobacco section two days a week, while holding down the same full-time job he had when he started working at Liberty. When asked about the status of the pipe business, vis-a-vis U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation and tobacco taxes, he replies, “I think we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in pipes and tobacco based on the cost of cigars. It’s pushed a small group of guys to, if nothing else, try pipes. And then we’ve had an ongoing interest with young people, lots of military guys—young military guys—who see their fellow shipmates smoking a pipe, and they’ve developed an interest based on that.”
One new development for Liberty Tobacco is a pipe club, which meets Sundays during the mid-afternoon. Although there’s always been a pipe-smoking clientele, the pipe club is a recent addition. In thinking about how it came into being, Williams muses, “It’s an impromptu, fun setting with a large volume of smoke going up and everybody just passing along the wisdom. As to why now? I think people are naturally curious. They see other people enjoying themselves, and they’re curious. We’ve had a handful of younger guys sit in, and a lot of the older pipe smokers seemed to want a more organized setting where they can share the culture.”
The store has sold out its inventory of McClelland Tobacco, and Williams is waiting to see if another company steps in to fill the void created with the closing of that business. As to adding new bulk blends, there’s also a wait-and-see attitude due to the uncertainty of FDA regulation. Williams sums it up in his classically succinct manner: “Everything’s up in the air.”
Throughout his many years of dedication to the industry, Hennegan has taken on a leadership role in advocating against regulation and taxation of cigars and tobacco. He was an early member of the California Association of Retail Tobacconists (CART), which sued the state of California over the passage of Proposition 10. The imposition of an additional 50 cent tax on a pack of cigarettes mysteriously levied a “double tax” on premium tobacco products, resulting in a nearly 70 percent tobacco excise tax. Liberty Tobacco was named as the plaintiff in that case, which eventually ended with a ruling against them and CART despite a multiyear effort to overturn.
Hennegan’s activism carried over into running as a write-in candidate for governor of California during the effort to recall Gov. Gray Davis. His tally of 67 votes failed to catapult him into office, but it served to demonstrate his dedication to supporting the premium tobacco industry against unwanted governmental intrusion.
One unintended consequence of Hennegan leading the charge against Proposition 10 was an unrelenting series of State Board of Equalization audits, averaging nearly one every year for several years. Fortunately, because of Hennegan’s legitimate business practices, Liberty Tobacco emerged virtually unscathed from the effort to penalize the business. “They’ll ding you a little bit here and there. They have to come away with something,” he says. “But overall, it hasn’t been bad.”
Looking to the future, having now acquired additional floor space, Hennegan is balancing the relative merits of increasing the lounge area versus expanding the walk-in humidor, or even adding a new feature such as coffee service or possibly beer and wine. Wherever the deliberative process takes him, one thing can be counted on as a certainty: Liberty Tobacco will be at the forefront of cultivating happy customers endowed with the unalienable right to life, “Liberty” and the pursuit of smoking.