The old house with a big porch at 377 Merrimon Avenue is rather nondescript. It looks like several other houses turned into businesses on that strip of commercial thoroughfare featuring businesses such as HomeGrown, Points of Light, and BlackBird Frame & Art. Inside on the first floor, however, is a shop that caters to a group of people who are most commonly referred to as “characters.”
In warm weather, you might find a few of those characters in rocking chairs on the porch. If you ask one of them where you are, they might say “Bruce’s.” B&B Tobacconist and Cigar Shop began nearby in 1979 as Bruce’s Pipe Shop. Bruce Barnes started the business after retiring from radio sales and moved it to its present location in 1984. Bruce’s wife, Doris, took over the business after Bruce died in 1991. Son David then took over in 2001 after retiring from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. (Note to anyone thinking of stealing from the shop: Unwise.)
Today, Dave Barnes is still found regularly in the business begun by his father. For a decade he was joined in the business by Mike Booher, but Mike left the business last year. Now employees Matt Ring and John Teague offer friendly advice and expertise, along with Dave. You’ll also find any of a number of regulars. Those who are most regular get their photos on a wall in the shop and are known as “The Usual Suspects.” This cast of characters is eclectic, Dave says, “We have judges and prosecutors, blue collar folks, artists, former military, people who are unemployed or on disability. It’s quite a mix.”
Upon entering the business, to the right you’ll find a room with varied seating—old chairs, mostly—and a TV, usually with the sound turned down. You’ll find folks gnawing on cigars and puffing pipes here most anytime the shop is open. “Discussions sometimes get heated, but people all get along and have fun with each other,” Dave says. Reminiscent of the old-time country stores that once dotted the American landscape, Bruce’s—um, B&B Tobacconist—is a place where locals hang out and discuss what’s going on in the world.
If instead you go to the left upon entering, you hit the counter, an area for pipes and tobacco, and the sizable walk-in humidor full of cigars. Of course, more chairs sweep around the counter where more characters can pass the time. “It’s been referred to as an adult daycare,” says one regular, Mike Edmondson. “It’s the people here who keep most of us coming back.”
Early on, Saturday was the big day for the regulars to hang out. They called their informal social club the Liar’s Bench, and told plenty of stories—some true, others a bit questionable. But the regulars couldn’t stay away throughout the week and the Liar’s Bench essentially became an everyday event.
“Saturday is still the big show,” says another regular, Brad Casanova, who admits to dropping in a few times a week. “But now on different days you’ll find different people. To some extent it’s molded around the person working that day.” Brad adds that the crowd at B&B embraces wives and girlfriends and says his wife was a regular until recently. “She’s pregnant now, so she doesn’t really come in anymore,” he says. And while wives and girlfriends are welcomed that doesn’t mean they—and especially their partners—won’t get some friendly ribbing from The Usual Suspects.
Brad adds that B&B is one of the more unusual places in a town recognized for being unusual. But it’s not just due to the people. Stories pour forth from customers about the generosity shown by Dave and the customers themselves. One regular tells of a collection taken up to help keep another customer from losing his house. Another tells of money collected to help a regular cover expenses from surgery. Money from the purchase of cigar boxes goes to the Swannanoa Dialysis Center Patient Crisis Fund. Stories about cards sent or hospital visits abound. As one B&B customer says, “We tell stories; some would say lies but we prefer stories.” These stories of kind-heartedness, though, check out to be factual. Jesse Blackwell says the folks at B&B presented him with a pipe upon his graduation from Army basic training several years ago.
“This place has kept me out of trouble,” says Jesse, who is dressed in black with a cowboy hat and “LOVE” and “PAIN” tattooed on his knuckles. A native of Leicester, Jesse has been coming to B&B for eight years. “I still can’t tell you a lot about cigars,” he says. “I got into pipes pretty good and had quite a collection of them for a while. But it’s really the people who are the draw. The cigars and pipes are just an excuse to come in and be around all these folks.” (Jesse’s favorite pipe tobacco is Beck’s Ol’ Limey Bastard, if you’re wondering.)
Mike Ring’s stepfather has been coming to Bruce’s since before Mike was born. So Mike started coming in regularly when he was 18. He’s now an employee, and Dave credits the former drummer for bringing in a younger crowd. “One thing that helped bring some new folks in was having the store open longer hours on Thursdays and Fridays,” Mike says. “A lot of people who worked regular 9-to-5 kinds of jobs couldn’t make it in here by 5:30 when we were closing. So now we’re open until 9 on those two evenings.”
Mike adds that two things set B&B apart from other cigar and pipe shops in the area. “First, you won’t find a more unique set of characters anywhere,” he says. “And next is the knowledge—and that’s from the people who hang out here and who work here. Put all that together and you have years of knowledge and experience that we bring to the table.”
The humidor is packed with cigars from all the major makers (Arturo Fuente, Macanudo, Montecristo, Perdomo, Romeo Y Julieta, etc.) and a large handful of others. The staff can help you find the cigar that’s right for you. “We try to respect your space,” Mike says. “We offer to assist customers but we don’t want to hover over people or give unwanted advice.” Cigar accessories such as cutters, lighters, humidors are also available. Dave says accessories such as humidors are especially popular as Christmas presents. Pipes are growing in popularity now, too, especially with a younger audience, and B&B offers an array of pipes (from around $30 to more than $600), tobacco, and accessories.
Dave says that people sometimes come in looking for bongs or crack pipes and he tells them they have the wrong store. After all, he is a former police officer. But if you’re looking for a one-stop shop for cigars, pipes, and all their accessories—plus a bit of lively conversation—you should give B&B Tobacconist and Pipe Shop a try.
For more information about B&B Tobacconist and Pipe Shop, visit its website at bbtobacconists.com.