on July 4, 2009 by Chris Arnot in Guardian Work, Comments Off on Ashes to ashes

Ashes to ashes

Emery at his desk at JJ Fox: 'This is believed to be the oldest cigar shop in the world.' Photograph: Graeme Robertson

Emery at his desk at JJ Fox: 'This is believed to be the oldest cigar shop in the world.' Photograph: Graeme Robertson

Living with the fact that smoking kills comes with the job for Robert Emery. But, as he tells Chris Arnot, cigar smokers are a special breed

In the window of JJ Fox is a standard “no smoking” sign which spells out that it is “against the law to smoke in this specialist tobacconist”. Except, it adds, “when sampling cigars”. I am just inhaling the implications of this and about to pass through the portals of one of the few public buildings in Britain where you’re allowed to apply a lighted match to an exposed wedge of tobacco when a nasty hacking cough rents the morning air. Evidently a customer, I assume, until I notice a Big Issue seller rumbling wheezily on the pavement outside.

He couldn’t afford a pack of Marlboro Lights in here. They’re £6.25 for 20, much more than you’d pay in any supermarket. But then we are on St James’s Street, one of the more upmarket thoroughfares in London, dominated by an imposing palace and harbouring several “gentlemen’s” clubs.

There’s something rather clubbish about JJ Fox. Ceiling fans, appropriately reminiscent of Our Man in Havana, rotate relentlessly over an expansive parquet floor partially covered with red carpet. Racks of briar pipes dominate one corner, a portrait of Sir Winston Churchill another. He’s gazing resolutely into the middle distance and nursing a cigar the size of a Zeppelin. Nearby, under a photo of polo players, stand a couple of comfortable armchairs in studded leather. The legs of a low coffee table seem almost bowed under the weight of a hefty glass ashtray containing a great grey log of discarded ash.

“It’s important for our customers to be able to sample before they buy,” says general manager and company director Robert Emery. “They’d do that with wine or cheese, so why not hand-made cigars?” Presumably because it breaks the law, I suggest. “But it’s crucial to our business, so we started lobbying the Department of Health some time ago,” he goes on. “The legislation is aimed at stopping people smoking cigarettes in public places. They don’t want to hurt specialists like us.”

So the exemption was granted. Only for cigars, mind you. “This is believed to be the oldest cigar shop in the world,” says Emery, gesturing around the downstairs boardroom to which we have repaired to sit around an antique table that could well date back to the origins of the business in 1787. It traded under the name of the founder, Robert Lewis, until 1992 when it became part of James J Fox. There’s still a Fox shop in Dublin, where the business was founded in 1881, as well as outlets in Harrods and Selfridges.

A former chairman, Freddie Fox, looks out from his frame on the wall as though casting a rueful eye over the debts of Oscar Wilde, embalmed in a glass case on one side of the room. He owed the shop £37, 17 shillings and three old pence when his bankruptcy order was served. Nearby is the Churchill ledger, opened on 9 August 1900. “He remained a customer until he died in 1965,” Emery says. And his consumption level? “It’s hard to say because he received so many cigars as gifts at the height of his fame. But he purchased heavily in his 20s and in the months leading up to his death.” He was 91 at the time. But then Churchill had an exceptional constitution.

While the weight of history hovers over this room like – well, like cigar smoke – the weight of modern medical science flattens any opposition to the notion that tobacco products shorten rather than lengthen life. Does Emery have any qualms about selling them?

“It’s a fair question,” he concedes after a short, rather nervous laugh. So what’s the answer? “We sell a luxury product to mature people,” he says. “It’s like alcohol. You can abuse it or enjoy it in moderation. Our customers get huge enjoyment from our cigars.” And what about cigarettes? “I can’t get excited about cigarettes.” But you still sell them, I point out. “Yes, we sell them because there’s a demand.” He smokes them as well, although he prefers cigars. “Most cigar smokers, I find, have something interesting to say.” Well, perhaps he’d like to say how many he personally puffs his way through. “It depends utterly on the social context. I sometimes go a week or longer without one.”

Cigars are meant to be rolled around the palate, like port or fine claret. Their smoke is not inhaled, so they’re nothing like as addictive as cigarettes. Go on, Mr Tobacconist: please tell us how many fags you get through. “Uhmm … normally I have a packet in my pocket. Could be two a day, could be more. Usually it’s fewer than 10.”

He looks surprisingly fit. At 50, he is lean and tanned and spends at least an hour in the gym five or six days a week. When he returns home to Kent, almost the first thing he does is blend himself a drink made of carrot and celery juice. “I can talk for ages about cigars but bore for England on the subject of healthy living,” he says.

Emery comes from a long line of fishermen based at Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. “Our name is still on a couple of cockle sheds there,” he says. “But I was the first generation not to go into the family business.” Instead, he joined a company making and exporting briar pipes. He was 16. By 21, he’d shaken the shells of Leigh from his shoes and headed for Australia where he “bummed around” for two years before returning to the tobacco trade – retail this time. “It was a small cigar shop in London Wall and I was manager within a year,” he recalls. “I left in 1987 to work here and my old shop closed down two years ago.”

Went to the Wall, you might say, like many other tobacconist shops. Back in the late 1950s, there were 15 specialists in Cheltenham alone. Today there are not many more than 40 in the country, and around a quarter are in central London. Must be difficult to survive, I suggest, when you can’t advertise and customers are constantly being told that what you sell is killing them. “It is,” says Emery. “But there’s still a demand and still a good living to be made if you do it properly.”

We ascend to the shop and our nostrils are assailed by the aroma of rich Havana. “Ah, that’s what we like to smell,” the manager beams, nodding in the direction of a customer who is ensconced in one of the armed chairs, reading a book and drawing happily on a cigar. He looks too at peace with the world to interrupt and ask if he’s smoking an Ashton VSG Torpedo (£10.95 each) or a Cohiba Robusto (£12.95). Whatever it is, it’s likely to be expensive. And you can bet your life the money isn’t going to the workforce in the Dominican Republic or Cuba. “A lot of it is duty,” Emery maintains. “With handmade cigars it’s done on weight and accounts for at least half the value.”

There’s a veritable cornucopia of Cuban exports in the humidor beyond glass doors where boxes of Spanish cedar are stored at strictly controlled temperature and humidity – forbidden fruit for wealthy American tourists to sample what has been denied them at home. One or two might have glanced up to see the words of comedian George Burns inscribed in gold letters on a black background: “If I’d taken my doctor’s advice and quit smoking when he told me to, I wouldn’t have lived to go to his funeral.”

Burns famously got through between 10 and 15 cigars a day. He was 100 when he died. Smoking kills. But it takes longer with some.

CV

Pay Won’t say. But the staff, who sell everything from pinches of snuff to pouches of St Bruno ready rubbed between wrapping fine Havana cigars for export to Germany and Japan, are on the standard retail wage for central London.

Hours JJ Fox is open from 9am to 6pm six days a week. Emery is usually there for three days. He works at home two other days, starting at 7am and finishing at 6pm.

Work-life balance “I’m good at switching off. Worrying about work has an impact on your social life.”

Best thing “When you’re a kid, you want to work in a sweet shop. This is the adult equivalent. You never know who’s going to walk through the door.”

Worst thing “The health legislation keeps on coming.”

Overtime

Robert doesn’t stop for lunch, unless he is entertaining a supplier or a customer. Usually he eats a sandwich at his desk but he does pop out for a cigarette, “only because I can’t devote 45 minutes to savouring a cigar”. At parties Robert says that he’s in a cigar business, never that he’s a tobacconist. “Otherwise people think you sell cigarettes and newspapers in a kiosk.” In his spare time, Robert likes to keep fit.

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