A simmering waft of fragrant smoke drifts around the well-lit and clearly well-loved cigar lounge. There are patrons aplenty with a set of chairs and a comfy sofa reserved for a party of at least five or six people.
Amongst the customers is a variety of different faces, young and old, all puffing away at various types of cigars like factory chimneys. There is an air of calm and classy sophistication but without any snobbiness. The lounge is simply a means to unwind when the day is at an end and you want to treat yourself and perhaps avoid rush hour on the tube.
James J. Fox is a cigar shop based on St James Street, a short detour away from the hustle and bustle of central London’s busiest shopping locales. It boasts a long and storied history and is home to a cigar lounge which is a popular go-to for suit-clad businessmen and students alike, all keen to sample a variety of different brands and even nibble on a pipe.
The store even has its own museum, featuring a menagerie of memorabilia representative of James J. Fox’s storied history and famous patrons. Whether it’s Oscar Wilde’s cigar orders or the chair Winston Churchill used to sit in, it is clear that the shop has its place in history, but where does it stand today?Artefact spoke with some of the staff at James J. Fox to explore just how they’ve maintained a consistent stream of customers for 225 years. Employees George Frakes and Jorge Gonzalez took the time to discuss a variety of topics including the popularity of cigars, their respective lounges in the modern era, whether trends such as vaping have affected cigar consumption, famous patrons and the appeal cigars have on our generation.
In 225 years, James J. Fox has been a host to many famous patrons, and as Frakes tells us: “We at James J Fox are proud of our heritage.” Although they couldn’t comment on any present famous clients, past customers have included Winston Churchill, Oscar Wilde, The Queen Mother, King George V, King George VI, King Edward VII and Napoleon III along with many other leading figures in arts, politics and business. Their museum details memorabilia relating to several of these individuals including the chair Churchill would sit in and Wilde’s ledger, which documented his purchases.
When perusing the vast selection of cigars James J. Fox have for sale in their walk-in humidor, it is easy to lose yourself amongst all the various brands and prices. The staff, however, are always friendly and more than happy to assist customers, whether they’re first-time smokers or experienced veterans keen to sample a fresh palette.
Divulging favourites amongst the staff, popular labels include: Partagas Serie D No. 4, Partagas Lusitanias, Trinidad Fundadores, Bolivar Belicosos Finos and Ramon Allones Specially Selected, all of which originate from Cuba. They also enjoy brands like Padron, from Nicaragua.
One curio we discovered was that the most expensive cigars currently for sale were a box of 1978 Davidoff Dom Perignon priced at £900.00 per cigar. Frakes notes that, “box prices can go well into five figures. In the past, there have been humidors and boxes of cigars sold at six-figure prices and we pride ourselves in our extensive selection of rare, hard to find and vintage cigars.”
Cigars have always carried a stereotypical air of sophistication and in some ways are seen as iconography for the rich and elite classes and yet, as Frankes notes, “a cigar needn’t be expensive to be a good cigar. Our prices start at £6.95 for a single hand rolled Blend 17 Tres Petit Corona which is a great starting point and a majority of Cuban cigars are priced between £7.50 and £50.00.”At a time wherein the likes of vaping has become a lifestyle choice intent on replacing smoking in popular culture, James J. Fox and cigars still stand strong. “Vaping products and the likes simply aren’t related to what we specialise in,” explains Frakes.
“On the contrary we’ve seen an increase in cigar consumption consistently over the last few years, especially with younger cigar smokers. Current trends are in favour of the cigar industry, with so much focus placed on carefully crafted produce across the consumable spectrum.”
The shop sees a steady influx of customers, usually getting busy in the late afternoon as an assortment of cigar enthusiasts visit the shop for a smoke and to unwind in the upstairs lounge after a long day.
Artefact was curious as to why so many still visit cigar shops and what their appeal is: “Cigar shops are timeless in character and charm and as such will never tire. With the advent of the smoking ban, any smoking indoors in the U.K. is a rare pleasure and a high-quality cigar is always best enjoyed indoors, away from the elements that may affect the rate and quality of the burn. Cigar lounges are very social environments and many meet friends, old and new, bonded over a common love of the leaf,” Frakes tells us
Gonzalez added: “Smoking a cigar is a practice conformed by several rituals. And as a ritual, it needs a temple or special house with the atmosphere that makes the experience sublime. This is the lounge.”
Another stereotype associated with cigar smoking is that it is a hobby reserved for an older audience, and yet, when visiting the lounge on different occasions, there was a clear shift in audience demographic, as individuals of various different ages, backgrounds and professions were all at one stage situated in one well-furnished lounge.
This is rather different to two decades ago or so, wherein the practice of smoking cigars was a habit adopted more by middle-aged adults and practiced in exclusive men clubs.
Since the mid-1990s cigars have become popular and trendy thanks to marketing showcasing the practice as glamorous and a symbol of a “good and successful life.” Celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jack Nicholson and even Rihanna indulge in the hobby.
“The customer age range is very wide nowadays,” Gonzalez says. “Today we see […] a more diverse customer age range, including many in their 20s, 30s. Every day, we receive new customers looking for their first smoke, seeking advice on how to store cigars, pairing with drinks, or simply how to get initiated in this fantastic and holistic experience.”
“Smoking a cigar is a practice conformed by several rituals. And as a ritual, it needs a temple or special house that makes the experience sublime. This is the lounge.”
“In recent years many stars appear smoking cigars in movies and shows, the product is placed in many movies or audio-visual productions, and this is very influential to the new generations. Also, we have seen the birth of several magazines talking about cigars, like Cigar aficionado. This also has made the cigar smoking more socially acceptable than cigarettes smoking, for instance.”
Artefact spoke with 21 year-old smoker Jin Phung, a student at London Southbank University who frequents cigar lounges around London, to get a perspective from the younger generation of cigar smokers.
“Ever since I was young, cigars appealed to me because they looked cool. I remember seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger on the cover of a magazine smoking one and wanted to try it out. When I first visited the shop they were really helpful and I soon developed a taste for them. Unfortunately, only one or two of my mates see their appeal but oh well. I even have a pipe now!”The taste is another reason that people are drawn to cigars. The taste of a good premium hand-made cigar makes for a relaxing toke, and with different flavours, depending on the blend, the origin of the tobacco, the age of the leaves, there’s always an opportunity to try something new.
Gonzalez explains that, “over the years the cigar market has had a lot to offer for those who are looking for experimentation. I also think the long and illustrious history of cigars and how they’re made is very appealing.”
In essence, smoking cigars isn’t for everybody, but it is inclusive. Whether you pop your head through the door for a regular brand to go or take comfort with a coffee in a lounge there is a social appeal to the hobby that for many still remains untapped.
As Gonzalez puts it: “A cigar lounge is a place where the cigar smoker can find peace and an escape from a stressful day. It’s a great place to socialise, network, and make friends. It’s that place where you can see people from different walks of life, different backgrounds, different countries, sharing an interesting conversation. It’s that passion for cigars they have in common what unites them.”
Featured image by HW Reynolds