When Jim O’Neill bought his first cigar 20 years ago, he didn’t know its subtle hints of chocolate, mint, coffee or nuts – he just wanted to relax.
He doesn’t remember the brand either, just that she was “very sweet” and that he liked her. But after years of conversing with cigar aficionados, researching cigar magazines, and developing his palate, he speaks with knowledge similar to an encyclopedia.
O’Neill opened his own business, Willow Avenue Cigar Lounge, about a year ago in Olyphant for a simple reason – there are few other cigar lounges in the valley, so he decided to change that.
âI thought I would build my own place,â O’Neill said.
O’Neill has several other jobs, but the business continues to be his passion project. The idea came to him four years ago as he was looking for a place to relax and chat with other cigar aficionados, he said.
Now he runs a completely renovated salon which is open seven days a week, including public holidays.
O’Neill opened during the pandemic in August 2020, but said business did not necessarily suffer. However, like other small local businesses affected by the closure, restrictions limited the entire scope of the store, including its amenities.
For example, the dimly lit living room hosts a plethora of wooden tables, all accompanied by at least two upholstered chairs meant to take the weight of a heavy day. A handful of new flat-screen TVs, usually playing sports on Sundays, adorn the dark walls. Suspended from the ceiling, a UV smoke generator spins the air 12 times per hour, doing exactly what the name suggests.
Down the hall, in a room painted in dark cherry red, the infamous “Golden Tee” golf video game flashes and buzzes under fluorescent light. A nearby high-tech dart board hugs the edge of a wall, where O’Neill plans to host darts tournaments on Thursday evenings.
These characteristics, along with a vibrant community, give the store a relaxed yet welcoming and hospitable feel that, for O’Neill, doesn’t make running the store feel like work.
Rob Kochanowski, an employee since the show opened, echoed O’Neill’s sentiments.
âEven on the days when I have to work, it’s a place to (come) to relax,â he said.
Kochanowski praises the store’s community, contrasting the living room’s civilian conversations – where âa difference of opinion is welcomeâ – with the more divided discourse so prevalent today.
âWhether it’s politics, a car brand or sports teams, there are no arguments,â Kochanowski said. âEveryone has smart, grown-up conversations. “
Indeed, although cigar smokers generally favor relaxation, they love to talk, O’Neill said.
Her living room provides a perfect opportunity for this, but the sheer number and variety of cigars can intimidate a novice shopper. In a humidity-controlled room made from sweet-smelling Spanish cedarwood, O’Neill stores over 100 varieties of cigars from around the world, including Italy, Nicaragua and Honduras.
However, newcomers will have knowledgeable staff to help them choose a cigar and cut it.
âIf you come here, we’ll explain all of this to you,â O’Neill said. âYou sit back and relax, and we’ll tell you even if you’re wrong. “
Those intimidated by the depth of the cigar world can also visit on Sundays, when a community of cigar-smoking sports fans enjoy teaching new smokers, O’Neill said.
For beginners, O’Neill suggests starting with a sweet cigar like the Kuba Kuba. However, whatever a customer’s decision, the boutique offers a peaceful respite for those looking to escape the stress of a long day, cigar in hand.
âThere’s just something about smoking a cigar,â Kochanowski said. âIt’s a Zen experience.