Two side-by-side historic downtown Hartford stores, including a smoky oasis for pipe and cigar smokers and a cutlery seller that opened in 1898, are set to close at the end of March as the owner of their building is asking for rents the stores' owners say they cannot pay.
At The Tobacco Shop at 55 Asylum St., customers are free to pull up a chair next to one of the store's antique floor ashtrays, light up a cigar and attack the world's problems.
Signs on the store's windows say the shop's closing is due to owner Jim DeLisle's retirement operating the store for more than 40 years. But DeLisle says the real reason he's quitting business is because he can't afford a rent increase by the building's owner, Grunberg Management LLC.
"It's a substantial increase," DeLisle said.
He wouldn't say how much the rent is going up, but landlord Michael Grunberg did, and Grunberg said the hike is justified by circumstances.
Likewise, the 111-year-old O.F. Stengelin Cutlery is facing a likely closing in March, its owner said.
Both stores are located on the ground floor of the parking garage behind 777 Main St., which has been the longtime office of Bank of America and its many predecessor banks. Grunberg's firm owns the bank building and the garage.
In effect, both stores are collateral damage related to the impending loss of Bank of America, which announced this fall it is vacating the building in April in favor of a lease at CityPlace I.
"Maintaining these low market rents was feasible when we had a major tenant in the building – the Bank of America," Grunberg said.
Other stores in the same building, including Harvey & Lewis opticians and The Camera Bar, either have leases or are negotiating.
As a result of the bank's departure, the heating and cooling systems of each retail space will require upgrading because the building has been on a centralized downtown system. Those improvements are expected to cost about $20,000 per store for a final bill total of "several hundred thousand dollars," Grunberg said.
The Tobacco Shop's current monthly rent, which is about $1,700, would rise an additional $700 a month, Grunberg said. The shop has had no rent increase since 2006.
"What I'm asking for represents less than a 30 to 40 percent increase over the course of the last five years. Plus I'm spending $21,000 there," Grunberg said.
DeLisle, who took over the 91-year-old, upscale smoke shop, from his father Leo DeLisle, said he was notified of the rent increase in November and given about a month to respond. "The landlord wants to bring my rent up to market value," he said.
"If I had more time, I could have offered the store for sale," said DeLisle, 64, who started working part-time at the store in 1962 as a 16-year-old high school student. DeLisle's father, Leo, had purchased the store four years earlier from its original owner.
"I've got one of the best locations in the city. Business has been all right," DeLisle said. "People are cutting back because of the economy. Instead of buying a $25 cigar, maybe they buy a $12 cigar – but they're still buying."
The Tobacco Shop is one of the few public establishments in Connecticut where customers and employees alike are free to light up. When the state legislature banned smoking in restaurants and bars in 2003, the store was grandfathered in, DeLisle said.
O.F. Stengelin opens up to Old Bank Lane, a small cut-through street behind the bank building, between Asylum and Pearl streets. Owner Jack Swayner said he can't afford his increase, which would double the rent on his 700-square-foot retail space from about $600 to $1,200 per month. The store sells and sharpens cutlery and knives.
But the store has had a month-to-month lease since 1997 with no rent increase, Grunberg said.
"I'm a firm believer in having retail stores on the street even if I'm operating at a loss. I'm interested in keeping the tobacco shop and cutlery store … I feel bad. But I've allowed them – and no pun intended to the cutlery shop – to shave my face for several years."
Area merchants and city officials say losing the two stores will be a blow for a neighborhood whose retail offerings have been steadily dwindling. David Panagore, Hartford's chief operating officer and director of Hartford Development Services, said the agency has been talking to the owners of the stores and the landlord "to find out what, if anything, can be done."
However, changes in the way people shop may also be contributing factors in the closing of the two historic stores, Panagore added.
"Whether it's the tobacco shop, a bookstore or a cutlery store, there are fewer left of these kinds of stores. We don't shop as much that way anymore," Panagore said. "It ends up being the passing of an era when they close."
Longtime customers say the ability to buy a Davidoff Corona Maduro or an Illusione 88 cigar and cozy up to one of the store's marble ashtrays and puff away is a huge draw. Now the future of that amenity is hazy.
"It's one of the last cigar shops where you can sit, smoke and talk," said Gerry Grate, a retired communications technician who was savoring a Fuente Opus X. That's a big seller, said DeLisle, "because it tastes most like a Cuban cigar."
DeLisle recently installed wireless Internet service. "Lots of people come here with their laptops and work," said Todd Bissonette, the Tobacco Shop's sole employee.
Like a bartender or a barista, Bissonette said he may not know all the names of all his customers, but he knows "what they smoke."
"This place is what a cigar shop should be," said photographer Ryan Nash, who was enjoying a cigar and political discourse with three other customers.
"It's a shame they're closing," said Sam Childs, 63, of East Lyme. "I've been coming here for 25 years. I knew Jim's father. Where am I going to get my cigars?"
Swayner said is planning to sell his knife-sharpening equipment and close the cutlery store in March.
"I took the business over 16 years ago," Swayner said. "My rent and parking has gone up like $30 since then. This was a shock. They didn't give me much notice and they didn't want to negotiate.
"I hope I can find another space somewhere."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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