Most about-to-be-married couples busy themselves debating which caterer to use or where to go on their honeymoon. Not Gary and Barbara Kolesaire, who decided to start their marriage and their own business at roughly the same time.
“We were about to be married, and I mentioned to the guy who owned the shop, ‘If you ever want to sell…,” recounts Gary, a pipe smoker who had been frequenting The Tobacco Shop of Ridgewood since he was a freshman in college. “We’ve been married 39 years now and have owned the store for 38.”
Initially, the duo entrusted the business to a day manager, spending Saturdays and two evenings a week in the shop learning the ins and outs of running a retail store with a specialty in pipes and pipe tobaccos. That was back in 1979, and, while the Kolesaires have been through their share of ups and downs in the decades since, today the business is stronger than ever.
“We went through every nightmare a retailer goes through,” Gary reports cheerfully. “Our rent was tripled, competitors came in, taxes went up—you name it, we faced it.”
The Kolesaires managed to meet every challenge through a combination of careful accounting (Barbara) and creative problem solving (Gary). When the rent on their well-situated shop skyrocketed unexpectedly, they signed the new lease but also leaped into action, looking for a suitable new home for their business and finding it in an unlikely spot—a small space just 100 feet away that the proprietor of an adjacent dress shop offered to sell them.
Gary Kolesaire had the vision to recognize what few would have—that this 500-square-foot space could be turned into a beautiful little shop showcasing cigars, pipes and pipe tobacco. Doing so meant eschewing the time-honored practice of showcasing cigars in their branded boxes and risking the ire of sales reps in the process, but he persevered. A practiced woodworker, Kolesaire enlisted the help of his coppersmith father to design and build cigar racks capable of displaying 100 sizes of cigars in the tiny space.
The Little Shop that Could
In 1993, the Kolesaires were able to purchase an additional 1,000 square feet of the building. This enabled them to introduce one of the first lounges in the country, situated on the mezzanine level. The design was intended to “incorporate what an American thinks he’ll see in London—and, of course, you don’t see this design in London either,” says Gary Kolesaire. A 200-square-foot humidor was also constructed on the mezzanine level. It housed “super premium cigars,” such as Avo, Juan Clemente, Oscar and a little-known (at the time) brand located just outside Miami called Padron. The shop was also able to win a contract with Davidoff. The 500-square-foot original store was then rented to another business.
“By 1996, with the Cigar Boom catapulted into full throttle, the humidor was rebuilt using the full 500-square-foot area of the little store,” says Kolesaire. “The right product was essential and this gave the shop additional room to grow.”
The expanded space gave the shop a seven-window storefront where inviting seasonal vignettes are set up to entice passerbys strolling the downtown area inside. “It’s important to keep the windows immaculate,” says Gary Kolesaire. “They give people the first impression of the store.”
Originally built in 1931, the mezzanine was brought up to current codes during construction. It is outfitted with comfortable leather wing chairs where customers can gather to enjoy a great smoke. It also displays more than 500 pipes. Bookshelves were added to give it an English library feel. “We wanted our clientele to feel like they should put on slippers when they come in to enjoy the camaraderie,” says Kolesaire.
Moving on Up
Constant evolution is clearly a fundamental part of the Kolesaires’ strategy for success. In 2012, the concept of a Davidoff Lounge became a reality. Being of a global concept, each lounge has certain Davidoff markings. “The design team then took the location, the building and global concepts and incorporated them all into a beautiful, functional space,” says Gary Kolesaire.
The third floor of the building was gutted, with the removal of 200,000 pounds of construction debris. The only remaining properties were the two 1931 skylights and the original brick walls, which helped retain the industrial look of the property. Artwork incorporating images depicting cigar smoking, New York and local history was created by UR New York. Bringing the vision to life demanded some doing, notes Gary Kolesaire. “They had to clear out the space by bringing all the ripped-out remains of those tiny offices down those flights of stairs. The fireplace had to be brought in through the window, and they had to blast that exposed brick wall with dry ice to clean it off.” The result is a gorgeous, welcoming space featuring a mix of natural and accent track lighting.
Today and Tomorrow
Having survived this long, Gary Kolesaire could be forgiven for resting on his laurels, but that’s not in his character. He continually searches out new products and ways to improve his store and the expert service he and Barbara offer to their loyal customers.
Kolesaire takes pride in his management of inventory, a skill he learned in his previous career and honed as a cigar shop owner.
As a member of the Tobacconists’ Association of America and the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR), Gary Kolesaire also actively advocates for the industry, which he says is an unfortunate necessity in cigar retail. “To me, the biggest challenge facing us hasn’t changed—it’s still the taxes and regulations we face,” he says, noting that he’s teamed up with other retailers to fight legislative proposals that threaten their livelihoods. “We all have to work together to fight for the industry we love.”
This story first appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.
– Story by Jennifer Gelfand, editor in chief of Tobacco Business Magazine