Nashville institution now entering its fourth decade
By William C. Nelson
UPtown’s Smoke Shop of Nashville, Tennessee, is an island of leisure and luxury perched in the midst of an urban maelstrom. If that overstates the case, it only does so barely, or so it seems to the harried visitor ducking into this first-class tobacco shop for a calming smoke, or a few supplies, or just for an hour of respite from the cares of the day.
UPtown’s is co-owned by Bill Nunnelly and Arron Sissom, names familiar in tobacco circles. Nunnelly is a native Tennessean, a product of the University of Tennessee at Martin, the United States Army (second lieutenant) and Boston University (master’s degree). Sissom, a retired Navy chief and graduate of Troy University in Troy, Alabama, met Nunnelly while he was looking for a second career after leaving the Navy in 1995. Their shared military backgrounds and love of good cigars and pipes led to friendship and to a working relationship of 20-plus years, culminating in Sissom’s becoming an UPtown’s partner in 2012.
UPtown’s was founded in 1985 and is located at 4001 Hillsboro Pike in Nashville’s upscale Green Hills neighborhood, having relocated a short distance in 2008 to gain more space. UPtown’s is a full-service smoke shop in every sense of the expression. Inside its 3,000 square feet, customers can avail themselves of middle Tennessee’s most glorious smokers sanctuary, with a wide selection of premium cigars, pipes ranging from easily affordable to high-end, fine smokers accessories and three separate lounge areas, each of them enticing in its own distinct way. (Thank heavens, smoking is allowed within the premises.)
The walk-in humidor is cavernous, at more than 500 square feet. Beyond that, general manager Marcus Hollingshead says, “The balance of the store is what would be considered standard retail, including two traditional lounge areas plus another seating area, which consists of a granite front window bar with bar stools. The front window bar area is on a raised stage, which also doubles as a working stage when we have live music.” Store offices are upstairs adjacent to the most private and quiet of the lounge areas. “Many customer meetings have been held there,” Hollingshead says. “This being Nashville, many songs have been written in that upstairs lounge, and more than one record deal has been signed up there. Throw in a few real estate deals and you can see that the upstairs lounge is truly our working salon.” Each lounge area is provided with a large flat-panel TV screen, internet connection and devices for playing that next big hit from the Nashville music scene.
With half or more of the store’s cash inflow coming from cigars, taking care of the cigar end of the business draws close attention from the UPtown’s staff. Hollingshead says the store’s top-selling cigars average $8 to $12 each, with the most prominent cigar sellers being (in no particular order) Padron, Arturo Fuente, Ashton, Davidoff, Perdomo and Crowned Heads. About that last name, Hollingshead adds, “Crowned Heads is a local cigar company started by two guys from CAO. This has grown, in just a couple of years, into one of the biggest brands in our humidor.”
In further cultivating a well-equipped cigar clientele, UPtown’s sells home and office humidors in a wide range of prices. “We have customers from all walks of life, so we like to offer something for everyone,” Hollingshead explains. “For the person who is a connoisseur of fine cigars and wants a special humidor to store them in, we have the Dunhill and Davidoff humidor brands. Those aren’t only an excellent way to keep cigars fresh, but they also perfectly complement upscale room decor, or they can stand as just a nice presentation piece for a living room or den.” He says the Dunhill and Davidoff humidors range from $850 to $3,425, but he notes that the highest-priced humidor “is an extremely rare starburst design from Dunhill with ingrained light rays emanating from a central sun.” Cost-conscious shoppers are not left out; UPtown’s also offers humidors in the Savoy “Executive” Series and units from Craftsman’s Bench and Quality Importers. “These are good alternatives at an attractive price,” says Hollingshead. “They range from $80 to $550.”
Pipes, too, figure prominently in UPtown’s retail footprint. Pipe manager Mark Brissie says the retailer sells 1,000 to 1,200 pipes per year. The store is famous for cultivating relationships with a number of high-end pipe makers, perhaps most distinctively with S. Bang. Many years ago, that prestigious Copenhagen manufacturer awarded UPtown’s with exclusive U.S. distribution rights. Brissie observes, “S. Bang pipes are highly prized collector’s items sought around the world. They are available in very limited quantities and are in very high demand.”
But it isn’t only S. Bang that provides sizzle in the store’s pipe displays; for nearly two decades UPtown’s has carried a number of the finest Danish pipes in the world, from carvers like Bo Nordh, Jess Chonowitsch, Lars Ivarsson, Tom Eltang, Peder Jeppesen and others. However, recognizing that not everyone can afford a high-end pipe, UPtown’s does make other options available. Says Brissie, “We sell a large amount of Neerup pipes, which are a creation of Danish pipe carver Peder Jeppesen. We also sell a lot of Dunhill pipes—both estate and new. And we sell many pipes by Poul Winslow, Peterson, Butz-Choquin of France and a lot of others.”
Despite UPtown’s reputation as a beehive of activity, customers are never kept waiting for attention. A staff of six maintains a tight ship, and a steady hand and eye on the shop’s comings and goings. The UPtown’s inventory is managed via a centralized database, and every cash register keeps the data updated in real time. Hollingshead says that, as with any retailer that sees a lot of walk-in traffic, the staff at UPtown’s is trained to be watchful lest theft ever become an issue. This, says Hollingshead, is “for the protection not only of the business, but of our visitors as well.” An in-house camera system aids in ensuring security. While a great many of the store’s visitors are familiar and well-liked customers, Hollingshead points out that the store’s proximity to Music Row (only a few miles) and tourist destinations (the Bluebird Cafe is just two blocks away) means that in any typical week, UPtown’s receives a lot of visitors hailing from out of town. But the customer profile is nonetheless relatively stable. For instance, says Hollingshead, “The average age of our cigar buyers is in the 40- to 50-year-old range, and they tend to be in the middle- to upper-class economic group.”
Cigars come in at around 50 percent to 55 percent of sales, with pipes and pipe tobaccos ranging from 25 percent to 35 percent and accessories seeing 10 percent to 15 percent of the action. Cigarettes, gifts and drinks round out the sales total. Hollingshead says, “Some categories fluctuate up and down over the years, but overall this breakdown remains pretty consistent.”
New staff members are trained thoroughly so that anyone on the payroll can complete whatever chore needs doing at any given time. “All new employees are given a walk-through and one-on-one training on the function of the different components of the smoke shop,” Hollingshead says. “These include, but are not limited to, shipping and package tracking, customer database management, point-of-sale register operation, inventory management, processing mail orders via phone and web, receiving new product shipments, cleaning, event setup and breakdown, and more. Additionally, our tobacco and cigar training starts on day one and never ends as long as the employee works here.”
Hollingshead does allow that, although sales are going well, the store isn’t racking up quite the numbers of walk-in cigar and humidor sales that were seen in the days of the Cigar Boom. “Back in those days,” he says, “online sales didn’t figure nearly as prominently as they do today. Now, most tobacconists have an internet presence and offer aggressive discounting schemes in order to be competitive. Also, the days before the internet got big there was more loyalty to local tobacconists. Now, you can find quality cigars in many gas stations, drug stores, liquor stores, online and in mail-order catalogs cheaper than what we can sell them for.” This bears out a crucial need for the kind of attentiveness to customers that UPtown’s strives to provide. Hollingshead says, “We’ve found that our customers value a home away from home where they can relax with a fine cigar or pipe, watch the big game on one of the flat panels and find some lively conversation. It is like that bar or favorite spot where everyone knows everyone.”
Hollingshead once used the store for just such a purpose himself, before ever joining the staff. “I was an iron worker before I came into the tobacco industry,” he says. “I was spending a lot of evenings at UPtown’s, relaxing and enjoying a fine cigar to finish my day. One day in 2008 I saw they were looking for part-time help, so I decided to apply. It turned out to be a good fit.” Pipe manager Mark Brissie’s own father, George, preceded him on the UPtown’s staff, which says something about the sense of loyalty that UPtown’s can inspire. Today, Brissie the younger, besides lending his 16 years of tobacco industry experience to the task of riding herd on the UPtown’s pipe business, also manages the store’s IT and computer repair needs, as well as website management and design. Every UPtown’s staff member (the remaining four are Joe Bick, Kyle Perryman, Jacob Ross and Parvin Greene) agree that it is a privilege to work in a shop that has become in many ways an institution. Says Hollingshead, “We are a group of hardworking, dedicated cigar and pipe aficionados who love what they do. We take pride in the shop and in being ambassadors for what we believe is one of the finest smoke shops in the world.” Hollingshead eagerly points out the accolades the store has won. “We have been recognized in many different ways in the last 30-plus years,” he says, “but being named in 2002 by Forbes magazine as one of the top 12 smoke shops in the world, and being the first Appointed Merchant by Davidoff in the state of Tennessee, have special meaning to us.”
The store’s size and selection make UPtown’s one of a kind in the region it serves. Hollingshead says, “Our staff’s product knowledge, dedication to customer service and attention to detail in all matters set this store apart from our competition and are really key to our longevity and repeat business.” That kind of personal attention to customers is (the point bears repeating) essential to survival in today’s tobacco retail environment. Hollingshead notes the increasingly heavy burdens of taxes and legislation restricting tobacco access. “In the past year, we have had to sort through pages and pages of tax code and make sense of legislated language that our own state of Tennessee government officials can’t understand,” he says. “It is difficult. We survive through hard work and perseverance, as well as a love and dedication for what we do.”
If you can’t make it to UPtown’s in person, you can still visit the store on the web at uptowns.com.