Editor’s note: This is a weekly series focusing on the importance of buying local.
The aftermath of the gift-giving season can have its share of challenges, and one example is a novice trying to navigate the intricacies of proper cigar storage.
“People will come in after Christmas and say, ‘My wife got me a humidor, and she bought it online,’” said Mame Kendell, owner of Smoke Cigar Shop and Lounge in Collier Township.
She might let out an internal sigh about the purchasing method, but she’s willing to share her knowledge from nearly two decades in the business.
“I take the time to help them season their humidor and explain it to them, even though they didn’t buy the humidor from me,” Kendall said. “I try very hard to please them so that maybe I can earn them as customers.
“That’s my goal: to turn everyone into a brick-and-mortar customer, whether it’s me or a different store,” she continued. “We all want the brick and mortar to be strong, because without that, we would have no more stores to smoke in. And that’s something people need to understand. If you don’t support us, we will go away.”
And that’s one of the reasons why it’s important to “Be Local” and support local shops like Kendell’s.
Since Kendall opened Smoke in 2012, she and her employees have strived to make it a welcoming environment for people who have relatively few options these days of places to enjoy cigars.
“In today’s age, we don’t smoke at home,” she said, or practically anywhere indoors. “As a little kid, I remember cigarette butts on the floor and people smoking in the grocery store. We don’t do that today. That’s not right.”
And so her shop offers comfortable couches on which customers can sit and plenty of televisions, usually carrying sporting events, for them to watch. Often, though, the focus is on conversation, with the sharing of various memories, anecdotes and opinions bandied back and forth.
In the meantime, they can puff away on a wide array of cigar brands, sizes, wrappers, fillers, countries of origin – there might seem to be an endless list of considerations – with Smoke staff members ready to provide guidance.
“We try to please everyone’s palate,” Kendall said. “The goal is to stock the humidors with what customers want, not what I want.”
A Castle Shannon native and Keystone Oaks High School graduate, Kendall got started in the cigar business in New Hampshire, where she and her then-partner operated stores and started a brand called 7-20-4.
“It’s actually a remake of an old brand that used to be made in Manchester, N.H.,” she said, and those who are curious can try it at Smoke.
She eventually returned to the Pittsburgh area and now lives in Dormont.
“My intention when I moved back here was not to open a cigar shop,” Kendall said. “Then I saw this space, and I said, ‘Hey, that would make a great cigar shop.’ And here I am.”
Beyond her own shop, she co-founded and serves as vice president for the advocacy-oriented Pennsylvania Cigar Association and is a member of its national counterpart, the 87-year-old Premium Cigar Association.
Locally, she said people in her business constitute a tightly knit group.
“One thing about the Pittsburgh area I’m very proud of is as retailers, we’re very close,” she said. “We’re good friends. We share knowledge. We share customers. We don’t fight.”
And proving the point to some degree, her boyfriend, Mark Holbein, owns Superior Smoke Shops, located in Munhall and Natrona Heights.
If he’s anything like his girlfriend, he enjoys what he does.
“You know what’s great about my job?” Kendall said. “Nobody comes in here mad. They all come here happy. They all come in because they want a cigar, and they want to enjoy themselves for 30 minutes, an hour. They want to get away from it all, and this is a great way to do it.
“And when you have a smiling face, someone working the register who is talkative and helpful, it makes their day even better.”
Those interested in joining the Be Local Network can contact Chris Slota at 724-225-1326 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Discount cards are available at the Observer-Reporter and Almanac office, 122 S. Main St., Washington.