Tobacco shop here keeps smoking along

Columnist Bill McClellan came in for some criticism recently when he ventured into the subject of secondhand smoke, showing himself to be partial to some of the flawed arguments of opponents of smoke-free air legislation. In his August 21 column, “Blowing smoke on secondhand smoke,” he was critical of the proposed county smoke-free air bill:

The plan would ban smoking in many so-called public places. I say so-called because the ban would impact restaurants which are owned by private individuals. I have a hard time thinking of them as public places.

To me, privately owned means privately owned. If the owner wants to cater to non-smokers — and we’re the majority — he or she can ban smoking.

He perpetuates a common misconception that is often repeated by the pro-tobacco industry crowd: that because a business is privately owned it’s not subject to any government regulation. What nonsense!

Today’s column has Bill meeting up with his former Post-Dispatch colleague, cigar smoker Harry Levins, at Town and Country Tobacco in Manchester.

In his last years at the Post-Dispatch Levins was the senior writer the newspaper turned to for detailed stories on historical events and their anniversaries, such as D-Day, and he wrote well and in depth. He faltered earlier in his career when it came to commenting, a bit like McClellan, on matters where he had a clear bias and/or was ignorant.

I recall Levins coming in for a drubbing from the cycling community after he wrote an acid piece about cyclists and how they deserved to have tacks put down if they organized on-road events that could slow down motorists. (I’m quoting from memory so if I’m wrong in any of the details please correct me!)

Levins, a cigar smoker, and McClellan, who declares himself a nonsmoker but doesn’t mind hanging out with them, clearly have a hard time understanding what all the fuss is about over secondhand smoke. Read what he has to say below and then visit the story on-line here to read the comments it has attracted. Needless to say, Bill Hannegan gets in early on-line!

Bill McClellan

Bill McClellan

Tobacco shop here keeps smoking along

Bill McClellan

In December 1966, Lyn Beyer bought his father a pipe for Christmas. One week before Christmas, his father died. Lyn, who was at that time a nonsmoker, kept the pipe, and soon he was a pipe smoker. A couple of years later, he and his wife, Bobbe, moved to Kansas City when Lyn was offered a management job with Sears. They bought a tobacco shop in nearby Overland Park, Kan., as an investment. Before long, Lyn had quit his job to work full time in the tobacco shop.

That shop was successful, and about five years ago, the Beyers had the opportunity to buy a tobacco shop in Town and Country.

One of their regular customers is my friend and former colleague, Harry Levins. He favors inexpensive cigars. I stopped by the shop Tuesday morning with Levins. I wondered what the Beyers thought about the proposed ordinance to ban smoking in public places in St. Louis County. That ordinance would exempt tobacco shops. So maybe it wouldn’t hurt the shop at all. On the other hand, maybe anything that restricts smoking would be bad.

The shop, Town and Country Tobacco, is on Manchester a little west of Mason. Pipes, pipe tobacco and cigars are the specialties. Imported cigarettes are available, but almost as an afterthought. A sign on the door reads, “Lawfully concealed weapons are encouraged on these premises.” A sign in the window reads, “This is a work-free smoke place.”

Bobbe and the store’s clerk, Jack Kremer, were just opening the shop when Levins and I arrived. Kremer was puffing on his pipe. “It’s encouraged,” he told me. Levins lit one of his inexpensive cigars. Bobbe and I refrained. I do not smoke, and Bobbe described herself as a social smoker. She said she smokes a cigar every two months or so. “To sell them, I should know how they taste,” she said.

I asked about the proposed smoking ordinance. Was she concerned?

She said it was very hard to know what would happen if the voters opt to ban smoking in public places. She said there is a smoking ban in Overland Park — tobacco shops are exempted — and a ban in Kansas City. The bans have not hurt business, she said. If anything, business has improved. That might have nothing to do with the smoking bans, she said. Tobacco shops generally do well in bad times.

They do?

Yes, she said. People might give up going to restaurants, but they won’t give up their pipes or cigars.

That is not to say that life is blissful for tobacco shop proprietors. Taxes are always going up on tobacco products. Some people are offended by smoke. It is not unusual for establishments that share walls with tobacco shops to complain that smoke seeps into their businesses. In fact, the Beyers, who share a wall with a Chinese restaurant, have had to install a special vent.

A woman recently came in to buy a gift certificate and then went outside to wait while Kremer filled out the card. A woman who sometimes delivers mail will stand outside until somebody goes out to get the mail.

This concern about pipe and cigar smoke bemuses some of the regulars. Cigarette smoke? Plenty of dangerous chemicals in that, but cigar and pipe smoke are more wholesome, they say. “It’s been proven that pipe smokers live longer,” Bobbe said. Longer than nonsmokers? Yes, she said. She explained that cleaning the pipe and filling the bowl are restful activities that mellow a person out and lower the blood pressure.

Jay Schneithurst, a regular customer, noted that cigars can give a person a little solitude. “When I smoke one, no one wants to be around me,” he said.

Except for the other regulars, of course. By the way, they are all men. Conservative men. Golf, girls, guns and government are big topics, with the regulars approving only the first three. The large flat screen television is on FOX News nonstop except for Thursday night, which is considered movie night. The men order pizzas to eat while they smoke and watch a movie. Saturday morning is also a busy time, with most, if not all, of the 15 chairs occupied. No one expects that to change no matter what the voters say in November. Still, the idea of a smoking ban rankles Bobbe.

“We should have signs up opposing this,” she said. “To me, this isn’t about business as much as it’s about freedom. This is a freedom issue.”

I looked over at Levins. He was sitting beneath a huge buffalo head. He had finished his cigar and had pulled out a pipe. He was cleaning it. He looked relaxed, if not mellow. On the television, three attractive blondes were discussing the news. Life seemed good at the tobacco shop.
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