ALBANY — During its heyday in the mid-1990s, Snooky’s Downtown Tobacco Shop in Two Rivers Market carried more than 100 brands of premium cigars that sold for about $10 each. One wall of its large walk-in humidor was filled with tobaccos from around the world.
On Sunday, Snooky’s will close, the victim of changing times, owner Eugene Belhumeur said. Smoking is on the decline. The national cigar craze — inspired by public figures such as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and radio personality Rush Limbaugh — has run its course.
There are few public places anymore where the aroma of a fine Arturo Fuente is appreciated nn let alone legal.
All fixtures and inventory will be sold at auction, beginning at 10 a.m. Snooky is Belhumeur’s nickname, derived from a 1940s radio show.
A former traveling salesman, Belhumeur came to Albany in 1979 to work at French’s Jewelers. In 1982 he purchased the inventory and fixtures of the former Wide World of Tobacco that was located near City Hall. He renamed it the Downtown Tobacco Shop and, in 1984, moved it into Two Rivers Market, where it remains.
“Our first spot was just 106 square feet,” Belhumeur said, pointing across a hallway at his original store. “We actually did more in gross sales per square foot than any other store in the mall.”
Belhumeur prided himself on selling only fine tobaccos and cigars.
“I never carried Swisher Sweets,” he said. “We only focused on premium pipes, rare tobaccos and fine cigars. Times have changed. No longer is it suave or debonair to smoke a big cigar or fancy pipe. With access on the Internet and with each new big-box store in town, it’s time to accept the changes and to move on.”
Belhumeur said his favorite cigar was an Arturo Fuente, a brand that sold for about $250 per box.
“In 1995 our average cigar sold for about $10 each,” Belhumeur said. “I once sold a beautiful humidor for $1,500.”
Belhumeur and his wife, Frances, have been married 34 years. For 25 of those years, they have worked side by side. Running a mom-and-pop store for a quarter-century made it difficult to take extended vacations nn a problem they plan to quickly rectify. A trip to California to visit grandchildren is first on their social agenda.
Belhumeur also will spend a little more time handcrafting wooden canes.
“It’s time to spend more time with my wife and grandchildren. In all of these years, we have never taken a week or two together for a vacation,” Belhumeur said. “We’ve only been able to take a couple days at a time for an occasional family emergency.”
Frances was responsible for diversifying the shop’s inventory through niche marketing. Over the years, they added handmade chocolates and other candies. There are large displays of greeting cards for all occasions and collectible bone China tea sets. At one time, the shop served as the Albany Greyhound Bus Station.
“This shop could probably go on, but it would require making a lot of changes, and, at my age, I’m not willing to make changes,” the 64-year-old Belhumeur said. “I’m ready to relax.”
As the former president of the Albany Downtown Association, Belhumeur has faith in downtown Albany, even though the number of businesses there ebbs and flows.
In the mid-1990s, Belhumeur served as Albany’s mayor and seemed to be a lightning rod for controversy. He battled the Oregon Citizens Alliance and anti-gay rights efforts and survived the Linn County chapter’s efforts to recall him. He also riled fellow council members.
The Belhumeurs plan to remain in Albany.
“Downtown Albany has been good to us,” Belhumeur said. “Two Rivers Market became our second home, and we’ll miss it.”
Cake and coffee will be served following Sunday’s auction.
By Alex Paul
For the Gazette-Times