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SOCIAL CLIMES : The Cigar Renaissance: Males Bond Around a New Fire

August 28, 1994|JEANNINE STEIN | TIMES SOCIETY WRITER

In the narrow aisle of the Century City Tobacco Shoppe they gather in pairs, in groups--men, mostly.

They gather to talk and smoke, smoke and talk, both the conversation and the smoke becoming dense, thickening in midair, then evaporating.

The talk floats from news to sports to politics to women.

But what they're smoking is usually the same thing--cigars. Cigars are big here. They are big in size (as in a nice, fat Macanudo) and increasingly big in popularity.

And as more smokers discover cigars, they're also becoming initiated into the rituals that come along with them: the choosing, cutting and lighting; the time they demand; the conversations they inspire.

While some men may be loath to call this a flat-out male-bonding ritual, cigar smoking is definitely a catalyst that's bringing men together. Those who don't fit into the loincloth-wearing, drum-beating brigades are finding this a pleasant alternative.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as Sigmund Freud said. And sometimes it's more.

As actor Jim Belushi put it: "It's a wonderful ceremony among men. There's a formal atmosphere to it, yet it's casual. And we talk about what men talk about, which is sex and politics and work."

As evidence of this cigar renaissance, witness the proliferation of cigar dinners at first-class restaurants, as well as "smokers," and the unexpected popularity of 2-year-old glossy Cigar Aficionado magazine.

"Male bonding and networking is one of the real dynamics in place here," said Marvin Shanken, the magazine's publisher and editor.

"About two years ago I went to a black-tie dinner that Dunhill (a top cigar maker) put on. I walked in and I didn't know anybody. And by the time the evening was over, I felt like I had 50 new friends. There was such incredible energy in the room. We weren't into the social layers of life, just the fundamentals of mutual appreciation of an object.

"A cigar can be enjoyed enormously when you're alone," he added, "but there is also the great joy of sharing a great cigar with a friend."

There's sharing a cigar--and there's sharing a Cuban cigar, arguably the ultimate gift from one tobaccophile to another.

That's because Cubans are illegal in this country, although true cigar lovers seem to find a way to bring them in. Even the offering of a Cuban comes with its own ritual.

Said Shanken: "There's usually a tale that goes with the gift."

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Cigar Assn. of America, more people are smoking cigars. After a decline in sales since the mid-1970s, in 1993 there was a 1.2% increase--modest, to be sure, but a definite ray of hope for the industry.

And sales of premium cigars, which make up 5% of total cigars sold, increased 24% from 1989 to 1993.

This renewed interest has been bringing more customers into Hugh Getzenberg's Century City Tobacco Shoppe, where smokers, some armed with the latest ratings from Cigar Aficionado magazine, come looking for specific brands. Individual cigars range from about $1 to $20.

The regulars crowd the counter, talking, smoking, laughing. There are lawyers escaping from their offices, actors, stockbrokers, producers, art dealers. A privileged few hold court in the shop's cramped back room, where cigar after cigar crumbles to silvery ashes as such topics as the O.J. Simpson trial are discussed, dissected and debated.

Getzenberg wasn't sure his store would turn into a '90s version of the neighborhood barber shop--but he hoped.

"I sort of liked the idea when I got the business," he said, "of an environment (where people could) talk and relax. . . . I couldn't spend three hours in a store, but I'll have two or three guys in here standing and talking and smoking a cigar. A work environment is not a friendly place to do this. Here you meet somebody and get into a conversation, or I'll introduce people if I think they share an interest."

Cigar smokers are happily lighting up at the same time various campaigns are working furiously to make anti-smoking laws more stringent.

Cigar fanciers argue that their sophisticated smokes can hardly be compared to cigarettes, with their paper wrappers and additives, and that cigarette smokers are different creatures, the way they nervously inhale. They also realize that some people react with horror to the mere sight of a cigar.

So they have been forced to seek havens in cigar dinners and smokers. The dinners started popping up a few years ago at upscale restaurants, which offer multi-course gourmet meals, fine wines and, of course, top-notch cigars.

At Remi restaurant in Santa Monica, members of Les Amis du Cigare meet on a regular basis for dinner, wines and smokes. Owner Jivan Tabibian started the group a few years ago; it has spawned the George Sand Society, whose membership is largely women.

"Jivan and I realized that there were women who would come for the Les Amis dinners, and they were so happy to have found a place where it was OK for women to smoke cigars," said Julie Ross, the group's founder.

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