Smoke sifts through the screen door of B & B Tobacconists, the shop David Barnes inherited from his parents 12 years ago. "Pipes and cigars make everybody equal," he says from a rocking chair, his feet propped on the porch rail. His assertion stops just short of a political statement, the kind of slow pitch you'd expect from a salesman.
And Barnes is certainly that. His pipe tobacco is internationally recognized; orders are shipped to Russia, China and Europe, he says. Here at home, in a repurposed house on Merrimon Avenue, his shop could be a scene from a vintage Sir Walter Raleigh ad.
Pipes and tobacco tins crowd the shelves behind the counter. A walk-in humidor offers hundreds of cigars, laid out in boxes. As if to complete the Rockwellian vibe, the shop’s characters sit before a large bay window as sunlight casts thick beams into the smoke-filled room.
But in my visits to B&B over the past several months, I’ve learned that Barnes — a retired special agent for the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation — doesn't make idle statements. And while he wouldn't suggest that the 14th Amendment be replaced with pipes and cigars, he's very serious about equality within the walls of his shop.
"This is a place," he says, "where people of all types, all political persuasions, from all social strata can feel safe."
Skip Campbell bought his pipe tobacco at B & B for six years before he made the transition from customer to regular. “One day I came in and bought my tobacco,” he says, “and then David told me to sit down. That was that.”
That was 10 years ago. Now Campbell’s picture is one of dozens that line the hallway between the shop and the lounge, under a plaque that reads The Unusual Suspects.
“The draw is the camaraderie,” Barnes continues. “These guys feel safe coming in here and talking about anything they want to talk about. They can smoke and nobody's wrinkling up their nose and making faces at them, nobody's giving them a hard time. And they like each other.”
His employees agree. “I cannot imagine that anyone, with regard to their attitude, color of their skin, origin, or anything else would ever be ostracized," says John Teague, 69, who runs the shop two days a week. "I can’t imagine that happening. I’m not sure I’d want to work here if it did.”
The camaraderie is evidenced by the 30 or so regulars who frequent B & B. But, in describing the environment he has created, Barnes twice used a peculiar phrase.
The folks here exude an air of independence, a quality Teague sums up as "a little bit less mindful of the attitudes of general society." Inclusivity aside, the regulars are mostly men, most of whom are large in stature. Many, like Barnes, have a background in law enforcement. A sign on the door reads “Legal Concealed Carry Welcomed.”
It's not exactly a vulnerable group. So why does Barnes keep saying that he wants the shop to be a place where the regulars “can feel safe?” Safe from what?
“We’re pariahs and we know it,” says Barnes. “After working here all day, I’ll go out with the smell of smoke in my shirt, and people will wrinkle up their noses. We try to be good citizens. When I walk my dog, I don't smoke a cigar anymore, because there's runners that go by me, and other people that I know don't appreciate it.”
“I think [B & B] fits the paradigm of Asheville’s dynamics perfectly," says Teague. "If we were an ice cream parlor or a beer garden, this place would be absolutely, totally accepted by 100 percent of the people in Asheville.”
But B & B isn't selling ice cream. In a society that has outlawed smoking in almost every establishment, the regulars at B & B feel stigmatized. In fact, I get the distinct impression that they are hiding out.
"It's pretty ridiculous," says Sam Young, 21, who has been a B & B regular since he became old enough to legally smoke. "We're known as Beer City USA, but smokers are crucified."
According to the Centers for Disease Control, cigar and pipe smoking rounds up the usual suspects: cancers of the lung, mouth, throat, esophagus and pancreas; emphysema, tooth loss, COPD, coronary heart disease. Cigar “users,” as the CDC phrases it, have the same potential to become addicted to nicotine as cigarette smokers. The CDC associates many of those same risks with alcohol.
B & B regulars don’t categorically deny the health risks of their hobby, but many question the logic behind a zero-tolerance anti-smoking attitude. Barnes points out that there is a risk to everything, even crossing Merrimon Avenue to get to the shop.
“Asheville tries to put forth an image of independence," says Young. "Independent thought, independent ideas, independent lifestyles. And that’s what this is." Teague agrees: “This is our alternative lifestyle.”
It’s an attitude that is expressed regularly and explicitly at B & B. The modern tobacco-free ethos, right or wrong, makes the shop a kind of refuge where smokers can gather without reproach, free from what Barnes sees as meddling public-health interests based on the assumption that people are too stupid to make their own decisions.
“What you need to have is life experience,” he says. “Make your decisions on that.” But what, exactly, is the right reason to smoke?
Former minister Nate McIntyre is monologuing. It’s not uncommon at B&B. “This is how I know tobacco is from God: What other substance in its most natural form, with as little human manipulation as possible, brings so many people together across so many walks of life? Where else in America can a banker, a construction worker, a Jewish rabbi and a minister get together and call each other friend and walk away feeling that their day is better?”
McIntyre is the national sales director of Emilio Cigars. He travels from shop to shop across the country, maintaining relationships with his buyers.
"Premium tobacco is quite akin to grapes,” he says. “The choosing of the soil, the choosing of the strains, the growing, the fermenting process ... is almost exactly the same thing, with different nuances. It is a refined product that is meant to be appreciated.”
“I think there is that misconception right now because tobacco is an easy scapegoat for all the problems in the world.” McIntyre emphasizes the difference between his business and the “Big Tobacco” stigma associated with cigarettes. He says the public misunderstands “because of an ignorance of what cigars are really about in mainstream society. Everywhere I go I get the opportunity to explain to somebody, ‘No, this is not a big cigarette. I'm not getting a fix.’”
“There is no difference between what we do and the craft-beer boom,” McIntyre continues, “except that we use tobacco and right now we’re having to fight that public perception.”
Barnes is just as opinionated on the cigarette comparison. “There is no addiction” to cigars and pipes, Barnes says.
Matt Ring is younger than many of B & B’s regulars. A former electrical contractor and touring musician, the 28-year-old says his current job title is “Peon.” He’s been working at B & B for a year and a half, keeping the shop open late on Thursday and Friday nights, and leading remodeling efforts, what he calls “second-home improvement.”
While the retail space retains its old-time feel, Ring’s influence is clearly felt in the shop’s lounge; the ceiling is tiled with cigar boxes (installed by regular Brad Casanova), and an enormous TV often tuned to the melodramatic true-crime reenactments of the Investigation Discovery channel.
“I keep it on for the Mystery Science Theater aspect,” says Ring. And it works; the kibitzing is constant. Even the older crowd enjoys the programming, if only as evidence of what’s wrong with today’s youth.
Teague credits Ring with the influx of younger faces, including Ring’s fiance, Nikki Farnum, one of B & B’s few female regulars. Farnum says the gender ratio has nothing to do with exclusivity.
“Women don’t allow themselves to relax,” she says about the fact that few women frequent the shop. “Raise the children, make the food, clean — always doing something. Women can multitask better than men. So I think that’s the woman’s mentality. They never just sit down and relax.”
Ring and Farnum aren’t the only B & B romance. Shelly Franks, a recent graduate of UNCA’s sociology program, has for four months been dating a man she met at B & B: Jesse Blackwell, a tattooed, mustachioed figure who takes in the conversation from beneath the black brim of his cowboy hat.
Franks says she was intrigued not just with Blackwell’s appearance, but with the fact that his rough persona had no impact on his acceptance by the older, more straight-laced regulars.
“Who would have thought that these guys would talk to each other?” she says. “They’re so different.”
But, as others have said, it’s the group’s varied nature that makes it so tight-knit. B & B is a place where lifelong friendships begin. And, in some cases, end.
An empty chair
One of the more curious decorations on B & B’s wall is an old khaki vest of the many-pocketed sort associated with fishermen, pho- tographers and hunters on safari. It belonged to John Marsh, a B & B regular. He was so regular, in fact, that he lived upstairs. And he recently passed away — from causes unrelated to pipes and cigars, according to Barnes.
Among the B & B crowd, Marsh’s figure has attained a mythical stature. And, like most legends, it’s hard to pin down the reality. Especially when most of the regulars are reluctant to talk about him. This much I know is true: Marsh had a shadowy past, a disapproving glare and an affinity for firecrackers.
“And pranks,” says Farnum. It’s late enough that Merrimon’s fran- tic traffic has settled down, and the group has filtered out to the porch.
“So one day we were sitting in here talking,” Ring begins, recalling the time Marsh buried a firecracker in the ashtray on the sales counter. It’s not hard to see where this story is going. The attention turns to Ring as he draws out his tale.
It’s impractical for Marsh’s chair to remain empty. The shop is too busy for that. But pinned above the collar of his vest is a close-up photo of his disapproving glare, his evil eye. “When 75 percent of your friends are old men,” Young says, “you have to be prepared for this.”
“I think we have a good mixture now, though,” says Farnum. The others nod in agreement.
Though the story of John Marsh’s firecracker has been repeated many times, the group is rapt as Ring brings it to a close: “Well, [the customer] damn near hits the deck. I’m covered from head to toe in ash. And John is sitting in his chair going, ‘Ha ha ha!’”
The group doubles over in laughter. The chairs rock. The breeze carries smoke into the street.
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