Where There's Smoke...

for the moment

As someone who always thought of pipe cleaners as plumbing utensils, I clearly don't spend much time at tobacco shops. I was lured into Leavitt and Pierce, a tobacco shop on Mass Ave., by its amazing marbles and tin cars. Upon close inspection the store offers more than kitsch and tobacco. Up a small catwalk and past a culturally-sensitive Native American cigar seller statue are five wooden tables with inlaid chess boards.

This loft area affords a perfect vantage point for peering down at all of the serious smokers. It is quite enjoyable to watch people vigorously inspecting and sniffing all of the cigars. A cigar is, after all, a long term commitment; you'll have that aroma on your clothes for the next five years.

A table is also a good place from which to take in the eclectic decorations that the store has gathered since its establishment in 1883. the portraits of Levitt and Pierce, hung like altar pieces, stare back at you from the opposite wall. Replete with 19th century Harvard baseball team photographs and old maps of the square, the store is historically more interesting than any Crimson Key tour. The loft area, which counts among its decorations 1891 Harvard-Yale football tickets and census reports from the turn of the century, includes complimentary issues of Cigar Aficionado for you perusal.

No less fascinating are the patrons, who tend to linger for about an hour--the time it takes to decently smoke a cigar. Some of them visit less than once a month, others show up several times in a day. A case of the latter is square-dweller George Despotes, who commented, "If you lose your marbles, it's a place to come. If things start to smell, it's also a place to come." Despotes, indeed, had his own aroma.

While not part of the original structure of Leavitt and Pierce, the loft has its own history. Originally, L&P; had a back-room for men to play pool and smoke cigars. However, because of the popularity of the poolroom, it was necessary to expand it to a room upstairs. The loft area is the former balcony which lead to that poolroom upstairs. When the poolroom was eliminated years later, the balcony was kept as a place for patrons to enjoy their cigars and play chess.

While no longer a bastion for the stereotypical "Harvard man," the loft area does remain pretty XY heavy. The regulars, mostly men in their 20s to 30s, do not, however, constitute an exclusive society of cigar smokers. Paul J. MacDonald, the owner, explains, "there is a sense of fellowship, but [patrons] seem to keep to themselves." Solace does seem to be a great part of the attraction. The loft is a haven from the madness of the square, a place to peacefully enjoy a cigar.

It is, in fact, the only place to smoke a cigar in Cambridge. Leavitt and Pierce gained exemption from the city ordinance against smoking because they would so obviously be adversely affected by it. Actually, even while society has come to see smokers more and more as lepers, Leavitt and Pierce has been doing quite well. Unwittingly, MacDonald remarked, "The tobacco industry is still pretty healthy." Immediately realizing the irony of his statement, he added "the peace and quiet I get from smoking up here for a hour a day easily compensates for any negative effects caused by smoking."

To reap the maximum benefit of the peace and quiet, you should avoid visiting the loft area on Saturdays, during lunch or near closing time. Although the loft never really fills up, it is definitely more enjoyable when the other tables are empty. Obviously, it is most enjoyable--and completely free--if you're a smoker. If you're not up to inhaling, you still can use the tables for chess, at the cost of two dollars an hour.

EPA warning: places featured in "Under the Cushions" are ecological sanctuaries. Although they might be news to us, they are a haven for some. Regulars at L&P;'s loft expressed their concern about damage to their environment due to exposure. So if you choose to go, conduct yourself accordingly. I suggest tweed for easy assimilation.