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January 16, 2014 - Image 12

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The Michigan Daily, 2014-01-16

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4B - Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Michigan Daily -michigandaily.com

Local tobacconist finds staing power

Maison Edwards
shop remains an Ann
Arbor fixture
DailyArts Writer
Asmuch asthecityofAnnArbor
derives its personality or, at least,
itslivelihood fromits colorfularray
of downtown storefronts, there's
one truth about business that's
impossible to ignore: It's hard to
stay afloat. The seemingly immortal
icon Blimpy Burger closed its doors
this past autumn, and even giants
like Borders eventually reveal
themselves to be only temporary.
At first glance, then, it would
seem miraculous that a cozy little
shop could nestle away in Nick-
els Arcade for over 50 years. And
yet, the name Maison Edwards
has been a mainstay of the his-
toric walkway - "Tobacco & Cof-
fee," reads the unassuming sign,
"sought after since 1963." There's
nothing that shouts or gets in your
face about wanting your patronage.
Instead, Maison Edwards shows
passersby a wide array of straight-
razor kits, grooming products,
Zippo lighters and old-fashioned
cigarette advertisements. It's a
presentation that offers a subtle
and effective message: Letus pique
your curiosity, and before you
know it, you'll want to have a look
And once you're in, it doesn't
take much more to become hooked.
Most days, if you happento stroll in
at the right time, you'll be greeted
by none other than Chuck Ghawi,
the owner and manager of Mai-
son Edwards. And after staying in
the store for just a few minutes, it's
easy to see how Maison remains a
fixture of Ann Arbor.
At one point during my time
there, a student walks in - Chuck
greets him by name. Seconds later,
the two are in deep conversation
about a blend of tobacco they refer

to as "wild sweet orient." The stu-
dent finds it too harsh, and they
move over to the pipe tobacco
blends, where eventually they set-
tle on something that might appeal
more. "If you don't like something,
I need to know so'I can write it
down for next time," Chuck tells
him as the purchase is being made.
It becomes clear that Chuck has
accomplished what most small
business owners dream of - he's
developed a dedicated clientele
of regulars, the ultimate coup for
what some may consider a niche
According to Chuck, it's that
ability to develop a connection that
is his biggest boon: "I think (it's)
the relationship, which really is my
only asset - the credibilityIhave,"
Ghawi said.
That credibility is backed up by
Chuck's extensive personal expe-
rience with the store. Opened by
James and Augusta Edwards in
May of 1963, the tobacconist had
been in business for over 20 years
by the time Chuck began to work
"I walked into here in 1986 as a
student and asked if they were hir-
ing,"Ghawisaid. "Three oldguys in
three piece suits all said 'no' to me
at the same time. So I got to know
Mrs. Edwards, who owned the
store next door and catered wom-
en's products, and she convinced
her husband to hire me part-time."
Chuck worked there until 1987
before he was hired to a corpo-
rate position out of college, but
he ended up returning to buy the
store in 1991.
"I really liked the store, I really
liked the area." Ghawi said. "It's
hard to find a shop anywhere like
this. It's something I liked to keep
going; it's not something I cre-
ated. What really makes it is the
diversity - the people who come
in here."
As if on cue, a sidewalk-busker
walks into the store strumming a
guitar - Chuck once again greets
him by name, asking how the

weather has been fairing. Once
the thrum of business dies down
a bit (and a couple of customers
have reclined to smoke their pur-
chases in the handful of chairs
around the room), Chuck guides
me through the intricacies of
The first tobaccos you're likely
to spot upon walking in is the
row of apothecary-size glass jars
that line a bar at the back of the
room - each numbered as a dif-
ferent blend of pipe tobacco. Here,
Chuck really shows that he knows
what he's talking about - first,
there are the "aromatics," clas-
sified by a greater proportion of
"shell casings" and flavoring. If
aromatics are the whole-grain
bread of tobacco, then non-aro-
matics are obviously the white
bread, with less overall casings
and flavor. Then, lastly, come the
English blends.
"They tend to be a bit heavier
on smokiness, so not usually
something a newcomer would
buy," Chuck tells me - or, essen-
tially, not usually something I
would buy.
When we move over to the
humidor which houses most ofthe
shops cigar selection, I ask hins
to guide me through a decision
as though I was a new customer
looking to get into the practice.
"I would give you a tour of the
different types of cigars we have,
the different countries of origin,"
he says, gesturing at the shelves
of cigar cases. "Dominican, Nica-
raguan, Honduran. I would steer
you toward a milder Dominican
cigar -" he selects one in front
of us after some consideration,
showing me one that seems to be
a lighter tan.
By this point, another regu-
lar in businessman attire has lit
a cigar and watches with some
semblance of amusement a few
feet away. Chuck moves between
the different cigar types rapidly
- darker Dominican "maduros,"
even darker Nicaraguan oscuros,


LSA freshman Ryan Dau smokes a fat stogie in the upstairs lounge at Maison Edwards.

ligeros, or the deepest shade, the
"double ligeros."
"Is that a double ligero?" Chuck
asks the man.
"It is not, which is probably
good for me," the man answers,
grinning, and the two laugh in a
way that only those who share the
same passion can understand.
After the store dwindles to
just us three, Chuck remembers
something else to show me, and
unlocks a door behind the pipe-
tobacco bar, withdrawing a var-
nished mahogany box. The two
of us crane our necks at the small
collection of cigars, each perfectly
rolled with the kind of finesse and
attention that hints at luxury and
a substantial price tag.
"Those are beautiful," the man
to my right assesses as he's finish-
ing his own, which he refers to as
an "affordable Christmas cigar."
Chuck tells me that he began

smoking cigarettes, but has since
dropped them from his tobacco
"Cigarettes are kind of the junk
food of tobacco," he says. "Pipes,
or cigars, you don't inhale; there's
no sense of addiction to those.
When I'm working, (it's) a cigar,
when I'm home, a pipe ... (they're)
two different experiences. The
range of flavors with pipe tobac-
cos is huge - you don't have that
with a cigar."
Though Maison Edwards's
humidor is carefully stocked with
a wide selection of cigars, it's not
hard to see that the store puts as
much zeal - or even more - into
its pipe tobacco offerings. Blends
are mixed by none other than
Chuck himself - but don't expect
to find a recipe any time soon.
"I measure the different ingre-
dients, and then I mix them - I
can't tell you (which); they're

secret," says Chuck, as the man in
the suit listens and puffs contem-
platively. "The proportions, the
types make the differences. ... It
took a long time to put these reci-
pes together, and I think in most
tobacco shops, they mostly guard
their process."
"It's like how Emeril Lagasse
won't share his recipes either,"
agrees the man puffing his cigar,
and the two laugh as though
they're longtime friends. As
smalltime businesses like butch-
ers and grocers continue to fall
by the wayside, it's becoming
increasingly difficult to forge a
personal relationship with a local
store - and yet, here at Maison,
Chuck's business thrives off of it.
"Wonderful people come
through this store," says Chuck,
and then he laughs. "I spend more
time with some of them than I do
my family!"




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