Business profile Tobacco Leaf

Store caters to smoker passion

Large stock of cigars keeps the customers coming back for another satisfying puff

December 20, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the Sun

Mike Bonds was holiday shopping at The Mall in Columbia when he wandered into the Tobacco Leaf, a store selling cigars and other tobacco-related products, looking for stocking-stuffers for his dad.

"He and I get together, on the weekends usually, and have a couple of cigars," Bonds said.

In particular, he was looking for a cigar known as a limited-edition Partagus 160, which is aged 10 years and is handmade in the Dominican Republic. Bonds had recently read a favorable review of it, he said. He purchased two at $22 each.

Bonds, who lives in Baltimore County, had never been in the store. But he was impressed that the cigar was in stock.

"A lot of times, I go places, and it's hard to find certain things," he said.

Tobacco Leaf opened at the mall in August, but owner Harish Gupta has been in the cigar-selling business in Maryland for almost 25 years. He has two other stores - one at Arundel Mills and one at Marley Station mall.

Gupta said his goal is to stock a wide variety of cigar brands and to offer advice to cigar experts and newcomers.

Like wine lovers, cigar smokers can take their pursuit of pleasure seriously. They read reviews and ratings closely and look for new favorites.

Gupta is an expert on the brands and the subtle differences among cigars. He travels to trade shows and tests new offerings.

"One big change I have seen is [that] the quality of cigars has gone up tremendously," he said.

Most of his cigars, he said, come from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua or Honduras. Prices range from $6 to $40 per cigar. His most popular brands include Rocky Patel; C.A.O., which makes a Sopranos cigar; Romeo y Julieta, and AVO.

The cigars are arranged behind glass in a space kept at 70 percent humidity.

"That is a must," Gupta said.

He said most of his customers are men, or women buying cigars for men. But he noted that a few women smoke cigars, generally ones that are smaller or flavored.

Gupta, a native of India, stumbled into the tobacco business almost by accident. For nearly 19 years, he was a mechanical engineer for the New York City housing authority, taking care of heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems. On the side, he invested as a silent partner in businesses such as luggage stores and tobacco shops.

In the early 1980s, while living in New Jersey, he invested in a luggage store in Hunt Valley Mall. While visiting the store, he learned that a tobacco company had been slated to move in, but the deal had fallen through. He opened Valley Tobacco in 1982 and moved to Maryland in 1984.

In 1999, Gupta opened Marley Tobacco Co. in Marley Station, then closed the Hunt Valley store when the mall was razed and renovated. He opened the Tobacco Leaf store in Arundel Mills in 2002. His wife, Shashi, and son. Rahul, run the stores with him.

The cigar business really took off in the mid-1990s, Gupta said, as cigars became a symbol of the good life.

"Nowadays, it is a passion," he said.

Gupta said he is aware of the health risks associated with smoking, but he believes that moderation is the key in everything from alcohol to fatty foods to cigars.

"Smoking has been around for thousands of years, and it's going to stay that way," he said.

In addition to cigars, Tobacco Leaf sells cigarettes, lighters, humidors, tools for cutting off the ends of cigars, and hookahs, a type of water pipe. The store has been doing well during the holiday season, Gupta said.

"There's a lot of nice stuff in here," said customer Nick Rickert.

Tobacco Leaf is at The Mall in Columbia, 10300 Little Patuxent Parkway. 410-997-1423.

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