Dissipating Smoke

When Sherlock's Haven closes, the city's cigar and pipe smokers will lose one of their few public refuges

People scurrying past Sherlock's Haven on a recent weekday bear the telltale traits of downtown office workers. Faces and jackets cinched tight against the wind, they walk with rigid purpose, heads lowered and eyes locked on the sidewalk. Theirs is the gait of the hurried and harried.

On the other side of the tobacco shop's plate-glass windows, meanwhile, customers sit and savor the afternoon's slow ebb. Broad eddies of cigar smoke mingle with guffaws as a small cluster of Haven regulars talk politics, sports, and Lindsay Lohan. Most of them drop by the Battery Street store at least three times a week, lured by their favorite stogies and a bonhomie that blunts the city's daily chaos.

“It's a relaxed atmosphere,” says attorney Pat Barry, talking between puffs on a Gran Habanero cigar, imported from the Dominican Republic. “Everybody's accepted here.”

“As long as you're not a dick,” quips architect George Calys, his chocolate-brown Joya de Nicaragua smoked down to a stub. More laughs swirl through the shop.

To a man — a few women also hang out now and then — the regulars ascribe their Haven habit to Marty Pulvers, the store's 63-year-old owner. His selection of cigars, pipes, and tobacco from around the world first drew them to the shop. His genial manner, seasoned by a wit that runs from dry to borscht belt, keeps them coming back. Mike Ege, a Sherlock's patron since 2003, explains the shop's appeal in simple terms. “It's Marty's living room.”

Alas, for those who seek refuge in Pulvers' tobacco oasis, the smoke and warm cheer will dissipate June 30, when he closes his doors for good. The owners of Embarcadero Center West, where he has operated Sherlock's Haven for the past decade, refuse to renew his lease unless he bars customers from lighting up. Bowing to that demand, Pulvers believes, would amount to retail suicide and, worse, reduce to ashes the tobacconist's creed. “The whole idea is to have a shop where people can enjoy smoking,” he says. “If they can't do that, there's no point.”

His exit from the Financial District will occur nearly 17 years after he paid $10,000 to buy the shop with savings he earned working as a postal clerk. He had dabbled in tobacco-related enterprises before acquiring the Haven, then located at 4 Embarcadero Center, helping run a Palo Alto cigar store and cleaning used pipes for resale. “I once told my wife I would be the used-pipe magnate of the Western world,” says Pulvers, who also held jobs as a social worker and a sportswriter in his younger years. “She laughed herself to sleep again that night.”

He nurtured Sherlock's Haven, named after the fictional sleuth and pipe enthusiast, from a worn, forlorn space into a cigar shop that Forbes.com has ranked among the world's best. Its inventory, beyond drawing the likes of a pre-Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger, represents an homage to frequent-flier miles, reflecting Pulvers' tobacco-harvesting travels across Europe and Central America.

The cherry-wood shelves teem with more than 40 pipe tobaccos — their names evoking a bygone era of leisure: And So to Bed, Nightcap, Early Morning — from England, Germany, and Denmark. The windowed humidor boasts some 50 brands of cigars, imported from Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, with the biggest as thick as an infant's wrist. Only a few shops worldwide can match the Haven's collection of handmade pipes, crafted by artisans in a dozen countries and ranging in price from $25 to $8,500.

Pulvers straightens cigars and pipes in their display boxes as he moves through the store, his eyes trained on new customers who might need questions answered. Dressed in customary flannel shirt and loose corduroy pants, he shows an elf's fidgety energy, an effect deepened by his short stature, slight paunch, and neat gray beard. In describing the lone rule he imposes on patrons, his voice betrays his Long Island roots, his hands fluttering in the manner of Woody Allen, another loquacious New Yorker. “I don't care if you bring in a cigar you bought somewhere else,” he says, slipping behind the cash register, his preferred spot for holding forth on the topic du jour. “I just care that you add to the environment in here.”

His open-stogie policy bespeaks a feisty advocacy of natural tobacco products and anyone who indulges in them. He blames smoking foes for demonizing his niche industry, contending that they equate small-time tobacconists with Big Tobacco, purveyors of additive-laden cigarettes. (In particular, he excoriates Hollywood crusader Rob Reiner, whom he derides as a “motherless fuck-monkey.”) Then he launches into a riff on how McDonald's poses a greater peril than pipe tobacco and cigars to the country's collective health. “Look at how kids are duped into eating fast food, that putrescence rammed down their poor, unsuspecting gullets,” he says, eyebrows spiking.

Pulvers has posted a sign outside his shop that asks those entering to leave behind fast-food burgers and fries “in consideration of our customers' sensibilities.” The sardonic request is a riposte of sorts: Boston Properties, manager of the Embarcadero West high-rise, claims it has received complaints from other tenants about cigar smoke wafting up elevator shafts into offices. Yet Pulvers insists the company has failed to provide details about who grumbled, and a Boston Properties official declined to divulge names to SF Weekly.

A reporter's informal survey of employees in four of the building's offices yielded a split vote on the Haven's presence. Workers in two firms described the smoke as annoying, in contrast to employees of two other businesses. In fact, Angelino Petrocelli, a nonsmoker who works in an 18th-floor law office, groused about the oily odors spewed by a Chinese restaurant on the building's back side. “That stuff smells much worse,” he said. “The cigar smoke is kind of nice.”

The edict that the Haven adopt a no-smoking policy snarled Pulvers' plans to sell to one of his employees, Jim Walker. The pair toured 10 possible alternative sites downtown but found the asking price too high or landlords unwilling to waive no-smoking bans. Still, even if they had located a space to their liking, they may have opted to simply let the Haven go dark. An initiative to boost the state's tobacco tax by 200 percent will appear on voter ballots in November; its approval could push independent tobacco shops to near-extinction in California.

“If that thing passes, there's probably no way we can afford to stay open either,” says Jim Barron, co-owner of Grant's Tobacconist, the city's oldest such shop. “Marty might be getting out at the right time.”

The Haven's regulars understand — or, more precisely, resent — the forces that persuaded Pulvers to bail. Their “brotherhood of tobacco,” as Walker calls it, will fracture after June, and the gatherings at one another's houses for barbecues and big sporting events will wane. Calys, who has visited the shop for four years, figures he'll light up at the Occidental Cigar Club. “But it won't be quite the same,” he says. “You can't re-create something like Sherlock's.”

Pulvers, for his part, intends to continue scouring the planet for exotic pipes and tobaccos as a partner in an East Coast distribution firm. Yet while he won't miss fighting the tobacco wars, he knows he'll pine for the camaraderie of the Haven's regulars. Every so often, on a Friday afternoon, they break open a bottle of single-malt scotch. Glass in one hand, cigar or pipe in the other, they relish the wonders of leisure time.

“I love the give-and-take with customers,” Pulvers says with a smile. “I'll probably end up asking Peet's for a part-time job.”

Tags: , , , ,

Related Stories