Tobacconist sees smoking success

John H. Hawes, 68, a retired Winchester policeman, draws on his cigar while his Chihuahua rescue dog Dexter stands in his own leather chair behind his owner inside John B. Hayes Tobacconist store in Winchester. Rich Cooley/Daily
Mike Bates, of Stephens City, draws on his cigar while sitting in a high back leather chair inside the tobacco shop. Rich Cooley/Daily
Matt Hayes, owner of John B. Hayes Tobacconist store, exhales his cigar inside his Winchester store. Rich Cooley/Daily
Fifty jars of bulk tobacco line the shelves for the pipe smoker. Rich Cooley/Daily
Matt Hayes taps his pipe as he prepares to light up. Rich Cooley/Daily
Matt Hayes, owner of John Hayes Tobacconist, draws on his cigar in his tobacco shop at the corner of Cameron and Piccadilly streets in Winchester. Rich Cooley/Daily

Smoking has been good for Matt Hayes.

Eleven years ago he moved to Winchester to raise his family and purchased the two-story brick building on the corner of Winchester’s Piccadilly and Cameron streets.

Despite medical evidence that smoking was harmful and amid a growing political correctness movement banning smoking in public places and restaurants, he opened the John B. Hayes Tobacconist store named after his father.

Now on any given day a steady parade of customers comes in to buy bulk pipe tobacco, search out cigars from wall humidors or pursue the shop’s accessories.

It has become an enclave for cigar lovers, who congregate in six comfortable leather chairs behind the huge store windows and leisurely smoke cigars, engage in spirited conversations and watch passersby on the sidewalk outside.

Hayes’ father opened the still operating John B. Hayes Tobacconist store in Fairfax County’s Fair Oaks Mall in 1981 as the family business and where Matt Hayes took his first puff at age 15.

And when Hayes decided to follow in his father’s footsteps in 2005, the elder Hayes gave some advice.

“My father said when someone walks through your door, make sure they are as comfortable as walking into your living room,” said Matt Hayes.

“I named the store after him because he has such a good reputation among customers and the entire tobacco industry. I wanted to capitalize on his good name.”

And his father’s advice is ardently followed.

Hayes and his four part-time assistants personally greet each visitor with a friendly smile and, when asked, expert advice.

Amid many positive reviews on Yelp, Jordan B., of Strasburg, said: “So lucky to have this caliber of smokeshop in Winchester. Staff is always friendly, and there is always a stream of great, friendly folks smoking in the lounge area up front.”

Mike Bates, 40, moved to Winchester three months ago from San Diego and now drops in three to four times a week.

“Matt made me feel at home immediately,” Bates said, stopping for a lengthy cigar smoke whenever he takes a break from his job as a driver/estimator for Haul-A-Junk.

Open seven days a week – 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Monday-Thursday; until 9 p.m. Fridays, and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays – Hayes said his worst problem is “being 24/7 as the owner/operator, but I love it and every morning when I get up, I am happy to go to work. I don’t like the paperwork much.”

Doug Byrd, 52, is one of Hayes’ assistants who helps him confront his worst problem and laughingly says Hayes hired him “when I had hung around enough and he lowered his standards so he could hire me.”

“What I love about this place is the family feel,” said Byrd. “We get the richest people and the poorest and everyone in between. It doesn’t matter who or what you are on the outside, when you come in here and smoke a cigar, it trumps everything.”

Catty-corner from the historic George Washington Hotel, the store is a comfortable sanctuary for dozens of cigar and pipe smokers who sit puffing their favorite smoke and engaging in sometimes spirited, sometimes solemn conversation.

John H. Hawes, 68, a retired Winchester policeman, has been a regular since the store opened, bringing his rescue dog Dexter, a calm Chihuahua who has his own cushioned leather chair behind and above the smokers.

“People who come in feel a camaraderie and they all bring different perspectives,” said Hawes, who teaches classes for the Division of Court Services. “We have solved all the world’s problems.”

Conversations often drift to “political correctness.”

J.D. Moore, 24, of Front Royal, who recently finished a six-year tour in the Navy, said he believes if people want to smoke, “they should be allowed to do it. I don’t like all the political correctness stuff.”

And Tory Wilson, 52, who consults on construction projects worldwide,  said, “I fought for my country to preserve the freedom to do what I choose. I don’t believe in telling people what to do or not to do.”

Behind the three storefront windows stands a 6-foot-tall wooden cigar store Indian, purchased as a gift for the store by his steady customers. And a neighbor donated two small Blues Brothers statues, one of whom holds a cigar in his hand.

Inside, 48 jars with various loose bulk tobaccos fill shelves, with the number of possible pipe blends “infinite,” said Hayes. The wall humidors are populated by hundreds of open-boxed cigars behind easy roll-up windows.

Hayes, 47, fell in love with the city after visiting, and in 2005, when a deal to buy a shop on Loudoun Street Mall fell through, he purchased his current building.

He and his wife, whom he first met in his father’s store when she came in with her father to buy cigars, got married in 2003 and have two sons aged 11 and 9.

Hayes understands the social pressure against smokers and said he caught “a little grief” from his older son after his son took a D.A.R.E program in school.

“They understand this is how we make our living, but I don’t know if I want them to do it,” he said.

Hayes said it is a financial struggle with taxes continually being imposed and new FDA prohibitive procedures for approval whenever someone wants to start a new cigar or tobacco company.

“They don’t say don’t do it, but they make it tougher year to year,” he said. “Bigger companies will survive but boutique cigar makers, who run closer to the break-even line, won’t be able to survive.”

When he’s not at the store and meets people and tells them what he does for a living, “normally, people are pretty positive.”

When they disapprove, “they just don’t say anything,” he said, perhaps intimidated by his 6-foot, 2-inch-tall, 230-pound build that is prototypical size for a National Football League linebacker.

He played soccer, basketball and lacrosse in high school and before moving to Winchester worked as an assistant carpenter and on an Alaskan fishing trawler for his uncle, catching rock sole, a tasty cold water bottom feeder fish popular in U.S. restaurants with the roe highly prized – and priced – in Japan.

Today, Hayes smokes none to nine cigars a day, with his current favorite a full-bodied Nicaraguan cigar.

His customers often return empty cigar boxes he then sells for $2 each and contributes the money to various charities or to load a box with cigars to donate to an auction for a worthy cause.

David Kelly, 36, a part owner for Café de Sol on Featherbed Lane, who stops in when he is not needed at the restaurant, said, “It is a good environment with good conversation and you meet some interesting people.”

And concerning health issues, Lori Riley, 40, of Winchester, who buys a Norwegian blend pipe tobacco for rolling her cigarettes, says she’s “very worried” about a harmful effect, “but I do it anyway.”

Tom Crosby is a former journalist and communications director for AAA Carolinas. He has been reviewing cars since 1996, and has been active in traffic safety issues for more than 30 years.

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