Alexandria, VA – Old Virginia Tobacco Company President Gary Pesh is feeling like a kid in a candy store. Make that a cigar store. He’s where he’s wanted to be for a while now, in the heart of Old Town Alexandria. The company, which has been in the tobacco and cigar business for 50 years, just opened its seventh location at 210 King Street.
Pesh is a history nut as well as a cigar aficionado, and he loves antique buildings. When the space at 210 King came on the market, he jumped on it, quickly enlisting the talent and expertise of Murray Bonitt of Bonitt Builders, custom builders with an expertise in historic restoration, whose resume includes Virtue Bar and Grill and The Majestic Café.
When Pesh took ownership, the space was covered in layer upon layer of drywall set in place from various previous occupants in the retail space. Pesh and Bonitt wanted to see the potential of what lay beneath all those layers. “We both wanted to take everything down and get to the original, core layer,” said Pesh.
Bonitt added, “It was great to peel back layers of old display shelving and the remnants of old build-outs of a Subway, and a pizza place, to get back to the original fabric of that great old building. The exposed brick, high ceilings, and exposed beams create a perfect ambiance for Gary’s cigar store and add an authentic feel to the space.”
History is on display in the shop
Restoring that original handiwork has imbued an Old-World character wholly appropriate for a building that dates back to 1800. Pesh also installed heavy mahogany cabinetry and display cases he sourced from a former jeweler in Baltimore. The shop feels more like an apothecary that’s been here for 100 years rather than a mere two months.
There’s a sitting area in the front of the store, with a couple of chairs and large display cases with cigars and cigar accessories, lighters, cases, and a huge jar of dog treats for Alexandria’s favorite strolling companions. An adjacent case features pipes of all makes and models, with pipe tobacco in glass canisters on the shelves behind it. Sitting on this case is a gorgeous antique micrometer scale, probably dating back to 1890 or so, that still works.
Toward the back of the store on the first floor, cigars are on display in free-standing humidor cases in the center of the room and lining the wall on the right. When they tore down all the drywall to reach the original structure, they discovered a couple of windows looking out into the alley. Pesh left the windows uncovered, as the daylight helped illuminate the humidor cases.
It’s not a standard set-up for a cigar shop. In most cases, a walk-in humidor is a separate room where patrons can select their own cigars from open boxes on shelves. In this store, Pesh and Bonitt wanted to keep the original ceiling beams and infrastructure, so Pesh had the display case humidors custom-built to accommodate the space. The result, as luck would have it, is a very COVID-friendly system that allows patrons to have a close look in a larger room but only touch the cigars they will buy.
Smoking lounge on the second floor is dream come true
When Pesh first saw the space, he knew the first floor would work well as the retail shop.
But when he saw the big room upstairs, with the high ceilings, wide plank floor, and big windows, he thought to himself, “Oh, I can make this work.” His other stores have smaller lounge areas, but he’d long wanted to do something different, to incorporate a larger space for smokers to enjoy their cigars and pipes along with their fellow aficionados.
The lounge is a great place to telework or simply relax with free WiFi and big-screen TVs. Pesh explained, “As great as we’ve always known the cigar community is, what we’ve learned through COVID is that we provide a respite for folks, a moment of relaxation during a pretty stressful time in their lives.”
Part of the restoration process included upgrading the HVAC, not because it was required, just because they knew it was the right thing to do. They installed air cleaners that clear out 99.9% of the space every 6-8 minutes, as well as an exhaust system that removes the smoke every 8-10 minutes and brings fresh air in. “We wanted to create a good climate for everyone,” Pesh said. “It was important for us to do it.”
Gary Pesh is passionate about his livelihood and thrilled to finally be in Old Town. “Cigars join people of all demographics together,” he said. “A general can sit next to a private, janitors can sit next to CEOs. Completely different political views can coexist in elegant discourse. It levels the playing field if everyone has a cigar in their hand.”
Old Virginia Tobacco Company is located at 210 King Street in Old Town Alexandria; 571-685-2100. The company has six other locations in Virginia. Visit www.ovtc.com for full details.