By Chris Sturgis
Paul Martin walked into Di Franco’s Pipe and Tobacco Shop on a Tuesday afternoon during the June heat wave. Although he was wearing a Harley Davidson t-shirt, he confessed it was too hot to ride his Hog.
“What do ya got?” Martin said to proprietor Robert Gresavage, while making a beeline for the pipe tobaccos blended right in the store, and displayed in a row of glass candy jars.
“What did you get last time, black cherry? Cherry cordial?” asked Gresavage. “I think I want the black cherry, not the cherry cordial,” Martin said, his voice trailing off into an unfavorable opinion of the cordial.
Gresavage, once a customer, bought the store in January following the death last summer of founder and owner Charlie Di Franco.
He scooped out his customer’s order, as the rich deep aromas and a sense of tradition twirled about like curls of smoke.
Welcome to a fascinating subculture where smokers are not exiled, they are encouraged, and even air-conditioned. They talk about taste, burn, and where a cigar was rolled. Somehow, the ingestion of poisonous, addictive nicotine is turned into hundreds of little choices about flavor, tradition and hand-carved pipes. There is lingo like “room note,” which refers to how a tobacco smells in the room, and lore about hand-rolling versus machinemade.
Some pipe tobaccos labels look like standard fare: Take a look at the selection of 24 pipe tobaccos lined up in glass candy jars. Some of the labels have a familiar ring to them: Borkum Riff, English aromatic, Crown Achievement, Dunhill mixture, mango blend, bright Virginia flake, Bessler, chocolate blend. Others have women’s names: Sweet Lilli, Sweet Karen, Sweet Fanny K and Sweet Dorna. Another dozen blends are out back, he said.
“They were all people in Charlie’s life. Sweet Lilli was named for Charlie’s wife,” Gresavage said. “He experimented with friends until they found something that hit the spot.”
One jar is labeled 308-330, but Gresavage refers to it as the house blend.
“Either he ran out of names of friends and relatives, or he thought it seemed better to keep it a secret by giving it a number not a name.”
Gresavage said he started smoking cigarettes during his 34-year career in the printing trade. He said the job was stressful, and cigarette breaks were like little vacations. He said he suffered a stroke in 2000 and decided to quit cigarettes and take up pipe smoking. For that, he went to Charlie Di Franco, who recommended the house blend.
“You try this. You’ll like it,” Gresavage said, recalling Di Franco’s words and his own ritual of initiation. “I’ve been smoking it ever since. I enjoy smoking a pipe tenfold over a cigarette. I could never say I sat down and enjoyed smoking a cigarette. It was just force of habit.”
Charlie Di Franco is gone, but his essence lingers like the product he sold for 46 years at Di Franco’s Pipe and Tobacco Shop. Di Franco founded the business in the garage behind his home on Route 33 in the early 1960s. He hand-crafted pipes for his customers, including Phillies Hall of Fame outfielder and broadcaster Richie Ashburn, the “best darned pipe-smoking, hat-wearing, joke-cracking, game dissecting color man Philadelphia has ever heard,” in the words of Sporting News writer Jayson Stark.
Martin said he’d been buying tobacco from Di Franco since 1972. The narrow driveway behind house is divided into two lanes marked with arrows for entrance and exit. Martin and Gresavage recalled Di Franco’s son, Tom, ran the store when Charlie was in his final illness. He would sit in his wheelchair on the back deck of his house, smoking cigars and greeting customers.
“He would say, the next time you see me, I’ll be back in the store,” Gresavage recalled. But despite a will to get well — he was healing from a broken hip and had plans to have both knees replaced — Charlie Di Franco died at age 88 on July 23, 2007. The men agreed Di Franco suffered a terrible blow when his wife of more than 60 years, Leda, died in 2006.
“I come in and buy. I chat, too. With Charlie, I used to talk about wines,” Martin said, explaining Di Franco was part-owner of a liquor store. Although no liquor was served, the store had the feeling of a neighborhood tavern, an atmosphere reinforced by a couple of stools on the customer-side of the main display case.
“It’s a specialty store. I mean, what can you get for cigars in a drug store? Maybe a couple of factory-rolled cigars,” Martin said.
Gresavage doesn’t carry mainstream cigarettes, but he does have clove cigarettes and the organic Native-American themed Native Spirit. Glass humidors are filled with hand-rolled cigars — Arturo Fuentes, Padrón and Monte Cristo. He said it is illegal to sell cigars rolled in Cuba, but cigars rolled elsewhere with Cuban tobacco are legal, and cigars rolled before the embargo are legal as well.
“I have pre-embargo Cuban cigars from the 1959 crop,” Gresavage said, pointing to the glass humidor. The flavor deepens with age, as long as they are stored at 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 70 percent humidity.
Gresavage said he is required to ask for identification and proof of age on anyone without gray hair, but he always asks for identification from anyone who comes in asking for Dutchies (Dutch Master) or blunts.
“That would be a red flag that the person is not necessarily a cigar smoker.” Some smokers hollow out cigars and fill them with marijuana, he said.
Di Franco’s Pipe and Tobacco Shop, 797 Highway 33, Hamilton, can be reached at (609) 587-6375.