By Stephen A. Ross
At their best, cigar shops are more than merely places where customers can pick up their favorite stogies, choose the pipe that suits them best, or purchase the latest cool torch lighter and cutter. They become a home away from home, where the clientele come to make their purchases and find out what’s going on with the other customers or the staff members who have become their friends. The best cigar shops become oases of serenity that offer an escape from the hurried rush of 21st-century life one luxurious puff at a time.
Tim and Tracey Halvorson certainly felt that way about Tobacco World, a premium cigar shop located in the Milwaukee suburb of Greenfield, Wisconsin, that opened in 1985. Tim is an employee at the local power company, Tracey is the owner of a nail salon nearby, and the two of them enjoyed spending time together with the other regular customers at Tobacco World. When the owner died unexpectedly in September 2008, the peace and serenity at Tobacco World was turned upside down. The late owner’s widow wasn’t interested in continuing the shop and sought buyers. Two potential deals fell through, and it looked as if the store would close forever—an outcome that Tim and Tracey feared so much that they began looking at ways they could scrape together the funding necessary to buy the store. Thankfully for them and countless other Tobacco World denizens, they were able to secure enough financing to save the store from extinction. They bought Tobacco World in February 2009.
“It was perfect timing,” Tracey deadpans more than eight years later. “The financial crisis was at its height, and Wisconsin was in the middle of passing a statewide smoking ban. I didn’t want to see it disappear. Unless someone stepped in and bought it, that was what was going to happen. To me, I couldn’t see 25 years of hard work just disappear. So, with no retail experience, we decided to put everything on the line to buy the store.”
Tracey enjoyed her first cigar in early 1998. Her favorite cigar is Fuente Fuente OpusX, and both she and her husband were active on the Cigar Family message boards. Known as Lady Opus, Tracey traveled with Tim to various Cigar Family functions in the United States. They have also visited the Arturo Fuente factory in Santiago, Dominican Republic, and the Chateau de la Fuente tobacco farm in Bonao while participating in Cigar Family Charitable Foundation events. They have generously donated to the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation and struck up friendships with both the Fuente and Newman families, who so graciously established the foundation. So the couple knew cigars and had a good familiarity with the industry, but as tobacconists they quickly discovered that they had a lot to learn.
“I was flying blind,” Tracey remembers. “I didn’t have the previous owner to talk to about running the business, so my learning curve was even bigger than normal. Now I realize that certain parts of the year are better for certain products than others, but that first year I was trying to see what worked. A lot of the reps were very helpful, and I would ask them what was ordered before, but then I was comparing that with what the customers were saying and what actually sold. I eventually found my way, but that first year or so was tough.”
One of the biggest challenges was learning the pipe tobaccos that Tobacco World carried. The previous owner bought bulk pipe tobaccos and then renamed them for sale in the shop. Neither Tim nor Tracey smoked pipes when they bought the store, so discovering what each of the more than 30 blends consisted of was like trying to decipher an ancient language without a Rosetta stone. The store’s pipe tobacco supply dwindled, but before those more than 30 jars became empty they discovered the former owner’s blend book and were able to find the suppliers for each of the store’s blends.
“The previous owner was more of a pipe man,” Tracey says. “He did well with cigars too, but he was more into pipes. When we took it over we found his blend book, so we could keep the pipe tobaccos the same. It was a part of the business I knew nothing about. I knew cigars, I smoked cigars, and that’s what I love. We carry 31 different blends, and most of them were the different blends that the previous owner had. Our customers were pretty vocal about being afraid that Tim and I would change the store.”
That’s understandable considering how the regular customers had gravitated to Tobacco World over the years. They liked its homey feel and unpretentious atmosphere. They enjoyed the absence of televisions blaring in the background—it was a place where they just felt comfortable. The Halvorsons felt the same way. They bought the store to preserve it, not to remake it into something different.
“You have to have a variety of pipes to be able to sell one pipe. They might sit there for a long time, but they have to be here so that the customers see them. Our most popular pipes sell for around $100, but you have to have a good selection because you don’t know when that pipe guy who wants a $400 pipe will come into the store.”
“I was a customer here, and there was something about how the store was run and decorated that I liked,” Tracey recalls. “I was sensitive to that, and I wanted to keep it going. When someone comes in after being away for a few years and they say that it still looks the same, I feel tremendously complimented.”
The decor of the 900-square-foot store is simple and classic. There’s a small walk-in humidor in the back, and there are several custom-made cabinet humidors sitting along the store’s walls. A pipe rack holding dozens of pipes from companies such as Peterson, Rossi, Erik Nording and Comoy’s is located toward the store’s front. A glass display case also sitting toward the front contains a few of Tobacco World’s higher-end pipe selections from Dunhill and Ser Jacopo, as well as lighters and other accessories. While the store’s size may limit its selection, the variety of wares for sale at Tobacco World is still rather vast.
“With the limited space, I have to maximize every square inch of display in the store,” Tracey comments. “Most of the cigars are from companies that people easily recognize—Arturo Fuente, General Cigar Company and Altadis. It was what the customers were used to. I even kept the same private label that was sold here for years. I wasn’t going to try new things and hope they sold when I already had proven winners. But I also try to have a little bit of everybody. I want a good range of cigars that fit everybody’s price point and everybody’s palates. There’s something for everybody here.”
Similarly, the pipe selection is varied enough to service anyone from beginners buying their first pipe to the briar aficionado seeking the rare flame-grain masterpiece. The Halvorsons carry a good number of pipes throughout the year, but they buy more pipes in the spring for Father’s Day and in the fall for the holiday rush and to coincide with their twice-yearly pipe sale.
“You have to have a variety of pipes to be able to sell one pipe,” Tim explains. “They might sit there for a long time, but they have to be here so that the customers see them. Our most popular pipes sell for around $100, but you have to have a good selection because you don’t know when that pipe guy who wants a $400 pipe will come into the store. We have a good selection of basket pipes as well, and we’ll go over the basics of pipe smoking whenever a person buys their first pipe from us. Hopefully, they’ll enjoy it enough to come back and buy all their future pipes from us.”
Eight years into premium tobacco retailing, the Halvorsons are in the midst of thinking about their next steps. Motivated to buy the store to save a place they both love, neither Tim nor Tracey envisions any big changes to the store, nor do they express much interest in adding a second location or moving into a bigger space. They’re proud that they kept Tobacco World from joining the list of tobacconists of yore, and they’re also proud that they have been able to pay off all the loans that they needed to buy the store back in 2009. For the future, they hope to find someone they can trust to manage the shop so that they can free up some time to take vacations again. Though wherever they go, their thoughts are likely to wander toward Tobacco World, a place they both deemed worth saving.