Place where love of cigars celebrated

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

A PERFECT MATCH — Sitting on the front steps of the historic William Perry House with building owner Steve Stevens, left, and in rear, Chamber Executive Director Jim Mains Jr. and Alan Manoian, director of Bridgton’s Office of Economic and Community Development, are entrepreneuring couple Kristin and Jim Apovian, who are opening a cigar shop and lounge in the downstairs space. The Grand Opening of the William Perry Cigar Lounge will be held on Saturday, Oct. 1, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Jim Apovian’s jaw dropped when he first laid eyes on the majestic William Perry House on Main Hill in downtown Bridgton. The huge historic Victorian-Italianate-style building, once the town hospital, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“You mean this building? Oh my God, this is it. This is what I wanted,” he thought.

The New Hampshire jeweler and his wife, Kristin, have had a dream for some years now, to open a cigar lounge — a place for cigar aficionados to buy a premium, handmade cigar, then sit back, relax and enjoy some good company among fellow aficionados. He and his wife met six years ago in a cigar lounge in downtown New Hampshire, after all. They’d been spending their summers in Bridgton for years, and had fallen in love with the town.

But like many who dream, he was hesitant to pull the trigger on his plan.

Six weeks ago, Apovian had just about given up trying to negotiate a lease for a cigar shop and lounge further down Main Street, in Kit Foster’s building. Foster was concerned that cigar smoke would permeate through the walls to his other tenants, such as Winterford Galleries. It was a legitimate concern, Apovian admits.

He was just about to give up when the leasing agent gave him Alan Manoian’s number.

Manoian? “He’s Armenian, like me,” Apovian thought. “It’s a done deal. We have a code,” he joked Saturday, while meeting at the Main Hill house with Manoian, the town’s director of Economic and Community Development. With them was Kristin, their two daughters Kelsey, 11, and Izabell, 5, the building’s owner, Richard G. “Steve” Stevens Jr. and Jim Mains Jr., executive director of the Greater Bridgton-Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce — the latter a cigar smoker himself.

All were celebrating the realization of a vision — for ever since Stevens decided to tackle the building’s restoration nearly a year ago, it was hoped that it would be able to be used as a social gathering place.

Manoian said, “It’s going to be the most wonderful uplifting moment, to drive up Main Hill and see those windows illuminated” in the 1860 house, which served as the town’s hospital from the 1940s through the 1960s. A soft opening is set for Saturday, Sept. 18, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with the grand opening planned for Saturday, Oct. 1, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. — opening day of the Fryeburg Fair.

“Cigar smokers tend to travel in packs. It’s a social engagement. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. The cigar is the social bond. And it’s something relaxing to do after a stressful day,” said Apovian, who will be taking over 1,500 square feet of the downstairs. He’ll use the two high-ceilinged rooms off the main stairs as separate smoking lounges and convert the former kitchen as retail space, to sell a wide variety of quality Central American cigars — a cut well above the domestic, machine-made cigars sold at convenience stores. He’ll also sell pipes, pipe tobacco, humidors and cigar accessories, but there’ll be no cigarette sales or cigarette smoking allowed. Eventually, he plans to open a jewelry sales and repair business in another room in the back, and open up yet another room to sell specialty wines.

But for now, his focus will be on cigars. Hardwood flooring will be installed to replace the carpeting, and smoke ventilations systems will be installed in both lounges, where comfortable stuffed chairs will be arranged to encourage socializing. One room will be a sports lounge, with two TVs at either end; a second, larger lounge will be reserved for quieter conversations, perhaps over a game of chess, or for reading a book or surfing the Web using their WiFi connection. Humidor lockers will eventually be provided for customers, so they can keep their favorite cigars fresh at the waiting.

Building a rapport

Apovian, who has a smiling, engaging personality, will spend time getting to know his customers (who must be 18 or older) and building a rapport, so he can meet their needs. He smokes a San Cristobal, by Ashton, a heavy, bold cigar. But there are hundreds of brands and varieties of cigars, from light to heavy, mellow to bold. Individual tastes and budget usually determine the type of stogie one smokes.

“My job is to find that perfect cigar for their taste buds, whether you’re smoking a $2 cigar or a $200 cigar,” he said. His prices will average from $4 to $35 a cigar. Cigars from Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic are best, he said; the much-celebrated Cuban cigar is illegal. The Apovians are confident they have a market for their business, since the closest place you can buy a good cigar is Freeport, and the closest cigar lounge they’re aware of is in Biddeford. “There are a lot of closet cigar smokers” everywhere, and more women cigar smokers than one might imagine, he said.

A different breed

Cigar smokers are of a different breed than cigarette smokers, said Apovian, who credits his best friend, Joe Moscarito of North Carolina, with helping him realize his dream of a cigar lounge. Cigars are not inhaled, for one thing; the flavor is meant to be appreciated in the mouth as one relaxes. “We want people to take a step in, and take a step back” from their busy day and relax in the presence of a historic building, he said.

If people want to bring their own cigars to the lounge, rather than buy them there, that’s fine, said Apovian, but there will be a “cutting fee” assessed. That means the head of the cigar is clipped to allow the smoke to travel from front to back. Soda, water and coffee will be offered for sale, but no liquor other than wine, although patrons will be welcome to bring their own.

The Apovians plan to relocate to Standish, where they and their children have family and friends. Kristin Apovian works in the medical field and will continue to pursue her career in Maine.

“It had to be the right place, and the right timing,” said Krisin Apovian. “We fell in love with (the William Perry House). There was no way we could not be here.” She welcomes everyone to come and visit, whether they smoke cigars or not; she said the smoke ventilation system will ensure that no one is sitting in a cloud of smoke. “We want this to be a mutually respectful establishment.”

Kristin said her initiation into the cigar-smoking lifestyle came from an appreciation of the relaxation aspect of what she and her husband view as a hobby rather than an addiction. “People take all of these anti-anxiety meds,” when the act of lighting a cigar “almost forces you to slow down and be retrospective.”

New concept, new blood

Stevens, with consulting help from Bob McHatton, owns the building with Josiah Pierce. Both have put a lot of sweat equity and their own money into the restoration, which was supported by the town through $28,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds to fix the roof.

“Conceptually (the cigar lounge) is exactly what I wanted to accomplish,” in bringing a new business to town, operated by a young professional couple who will be active in the business life of the community, Stevens said. “It’s what I see that Bridgton needs to do, to bring new concepts into town, and new blood, that won’t take away from anybody else.”

Manoian is enthusiastic, and not only because he’s dealing with a fellow Armenian. “I really think this could be the right fit,” he said. “I think this is fate. This is the type of social gathering place that makes the economics of the downtown work, and this is what is going to make redevelopment happen on Main Hill.”

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