Smoke shops battle high taxes and recession

Dave Haswell drew hard on the last of his hand-rolled cigarette and put the smoldering embers out in the ashtray in front of him.

The 71-year-old former heavy equipment operator relaxed as he let the smoke escape his mouth and drift toward the ceiling at Bogart’s Smoke Shop in Dunnellon.

Haswell took his first drag when he was 11 years old, when he stole a cigar from his father’s tobacco stash. He seldom looks back to regret what he did.

Dave Haswell, left, lights up a cigarette as Robyn Sepik, co-owner of Bogart's Smoke Shop in Dunnellon, watches. The smoke shop also sells beer and wine.

Dave Haswell, left, lights up a cigarette as Robyn Sepik, co-owner of Bogart's Smoke Shop in Dunnellon, watches. The smoke shop also sells beer and wine.

“I got rid of all my other bad habits,” Haswell said, sitting at one of Bogart’s tables, smoke from the bar drifting over his head from a mix of Winstons, Marlboros and Camels.

“I don’t drink much anymore. I don’t chase wild women. I don’t pick fights,” he said, laughing and adjusting his black John Deere cap.

Hundreds of cigarette and cigar brands and styles line the wall of the 1,300-square-foot shop at 11582 N. Williams St. Lighters, ashtrays, rolling papers and almost every conceivable bit of smoking paraphernalia are packed behind the store’s counter.

Black curtains cover its windows and the room is comfortably dark and welcoming.

It is one of half a dozen smoke shops in Marion County specializing in tobacco products.

Like most businesses during the recession, and with the political push to snuff out smoking, smoke shops are struggling to stay in business.

Taxes on tobacco products have skyrocketed, smoking is banned in most public places and advertising is limited to a handful of venues.

Bogart’s and places like it are among a dwindling number of locations where smokers can find public refuge and a friendly face.

Forty-five years ago, nearly one in every two adults smoked. Now the number is one in five.

Haswell comes to the smoke shop for the companionship of military veterans such as himself and to be able to smoke in peace without non-smokers, or reformed ones, judging him.

“This is where we hang out and there’s good people who come here,” he said. “And there’s also such a thing as customer loyalty. I’d like to see (Bogart’s) succeed.”

Owners Robyn and Robert Sepik cover the windows of their shop so passersby won’t gawk.

In order for smoke shops to survive, they’ve had to add such things as bars, roomy humidors for cigars, low prices and an extra layer of customer service to keep people coming back.

On the opposite side of the tobacco counter at Bogart’s, the Sepiks installed a bar where they sell beer and wine. A flat-screen television stays on a sports channel.

“And I know it sounds racist, but we also speak English,” said Robyn Sepik, a former Dallas bartender.

The store has about 2,000 regular customers, she said.

The petite 42-year-old hugs many of them when they leave after a beer or smoke, wishing them well and asking them to return soon.

“There are two kinds of smokers: those that go to convenience stores because they are already buying gas. That’s the smoker where it’s a real habit, two, three packs a day. Then the other smokers, our group here, wants their (tobacco) fresh. It’s about cost, it’s about service,” she said.

Personalized service is any smoke shop’s bread and butter if they want to pay their overhead.

Until Sepik learns your name, “it’s either Honey, Baby, Sugar or Darlin’,” she said. “It’s about taking the time to make people feel they matter. That’s all they all want.

“And we take our time here. You don’t want to be pushed in and pushed out.”

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For a smoke shop to survive today, they have to offer variety. Sepik’s prices for cigars kept in her humidor range from $1 to $50. Cigarettes run from about $3.50 for a pack of 20 to $10.50.

Because of taxes and wholesale costs, she says she makes only about 3 cents profit off each cigarette pack.

“So it’s about volume. It’s all volume,” she said. “I make more money off a 50-cent lighter than a pack of cigarettes.”

As for bans prohibiting smoking in many public places, “I didn’t like it as a consumer, but as a business person I’m fine with it,” she said. “It helped us because people could smoke here with no fear of persecution.”

But it isn’t only smokers who are persecuted, she added. Typically, two out of every three shopping plazas turn down smoke shops.

Sepik doesn’t believe smoking is down to about 21 percent of the adult population in the U.S. She thinks there are plenty of closet smokers.

She says as the cost of cigarettes and cigars have risen, many smokers have switched to less costly brands.

To cut expenses, Haswell has switched to rolling his own cigarettes. It costs him about $13 to make a carton of 20 packs. A carton of Winstons costs about $50. The company also adds a myriad of chemicals to its cigarettes. Haswell’s are made of only shredded tobacco and a filter.

Sepik started smoking when she was 13. The advice from her mother: Try not to burn the house down.

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Jonathan Matias has owned Suite 306 for three years. The smoke shop on State Road 200 across from Paddock Mall includes a full bar selling liquor, beer and wine.

“One can carry the other. Each (the bar and the tobacco portion of the store) can definitely survive on their own,” he said.

The 30-year-old Matias used to manage restaurants, “but instead of selling food and alcohol, it’s tobacco and alcohol. Tobacco is my food.”

Matias said his business strategy for his 2,775-square-foot smoke shop and bar is typical of smoke shops trying to stay open amid rising tobacco taxes and the recession.

He said he provides customers a place to smoke, watch television, play pool or video games, or sit at the bar.

“No one is offended here when someone smokes,” he said.

He offers about 150 brands of cigars and cigarettes and claims the largest humidor in North Central Florida.

“I think it’s about the atmosphere, the service,” he said, citing his 100 or so regular customers.

Just like the Sepiks, he relies on a volume of customers to make ends meet.

Matias said he rarely smokes any of his own cigars, and drinks almost only when a customer buys him a glass. Both traits are good for business, he said.

As for the future of smoke shops, Matias said they will have to continue to offer something other than tobacco.

And the recession?

“You can’t say bars, and tobacco, are recession proof,” he said. “But people who drink will always drink, and people who smoke will always smoke.”


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