[Photo Essay published in Fotorater Magazine - View on Flickr]
Midtown West is home to a large number of textile and clothing factories, but on the western reaches of the Garment District there is a factory of a different kind-where customers can buy the product straight from the production line.
Martinez Cigars on West 29th Street shares a block with textile wholesalers and a Subway franchise. Customers can buy a range of Martinez brand cigars, all made on site, but they can also have a cigar rolled for them right then and there.
“These guys have been here forever,” says Terence Roberts, who studied at the nearby CUNY Baruch campus in the 1990s. “I got into cigars through coming here when I was a student. They’ve been part of the community for a long time.“
‘Forever’, in this case, is 1974, when Antonio Martinez opened the store at this exact location. A cigar roller in the Dominican Republic, he moved to New York from the small town of Tamboril in 1972 to work as a roller at another cigar company. “He saw an opportunity, and within two years he had his own operation,” says his son Jesus, a thoughtful and amiable man, who has been managing the store since the mid-1990s. Antonio Martinez, who died in 2002, did not speak English, so New York-born Jesus helped out on weekends.
Martinez is about the size of a small studio apartment, with Dominican and American baseball memorabilia and old photographs taking up most of the wall space. Cigar boxes are stacked wherever there is free space and three specialist cigar-rolling tables line the back wall—the company has four rollers, or tabaqueros, who work in different shifts mainly during the week. The store’s chairs are usually occupied by people smoking their cigars and chatting.
The cigars, which Martinez also sells through their website, range from three to 10 dollars for individual cigars and can also be purchased in boxes of 25. As of 2007, cigars are also taxed far less than cigarettes, so cigars often work out cheaper than a pack of cigarettes. Major cigar brands like Cohiba or Graycliff on the other hand can cost from around 25 dollars to hundreds of dollars per cigar, depending on factors like the blend of leaves, the wrapper, and the age of the cigar.
“Due to the smoking ban,” said Martinez, “I would say we are selling slightly fewer cigars than before, but it is a great business. You get to meet all kinds of different people, especially being in New York City—and you can have great conversations just sitting here and smoking your cigar. ” It is also a rare indoor space in New York; because it is retail space, smoking is allowed. “I’ve been coming here since Jesus Martinez was Seventh Avenue for many years. “Cigar smoking is different from cigarette smoking,” said Martinez. “People like to savor them and enjoy each other’s company.”
New York City has a cigar manufacturing history. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Manhattan had over a thousand cigar factories, more than any other city in the world. The industry declined after WW1 with the increasing popularity of cigarettes, and because manufacturers moved operations to the Caribbean and Central America.
While an atypical sight in the Garment District, which is a also not historically a Hispanic neighborhood, there are in a fact a handful of cigar businesses in Midtown West that sell their own brands—but Martinez Cigars is the only one in the area that still uses on-site rollers. Dominican-run La Rosa Cubana on Sixth Avenue was a midtown cigar institution, but they moved to Atlantic Avenue in the Bronx last month due to rent problems. Taino Cigars (named after Cuba’s indigenous population) also had rollers in their Hell’s Kitchen location until a few years ago, but now get their cigars come from Florida. D.P. Cigars, nearby on 30th street, don’t have rollers in the store either.
At Martinez, business is good—they have a core group of regulars but there is a growing number of tourists stopping in thanks to an increase in area hotels and attractions. Martinez has no intention of moving operations. “The business and the foot traffic is here,” says Martinez. “A few years ago we were worried because a lot of the buildings around here were being torn down or sold to build high-rises, but we are lucky because, having been here for 37 years, we have a great relationship with our management company and they are very fair. The rent rises a little each year, but not too much.” Martinez wants to expand the manufacturing side and have more rollers. “I will try to keep that operation here, but if the rent gets too expensive in NYC, I might have to move the additional rolling operations to the Dominican Republic—but this would be in addition to our store here.”
Their tobacco is shipped from the Dominican Republic or Miami direct to the store about once every two months as demand dictates. The wrapping leaves are from Sumatra. The small freshly-rolled cigars stacked like tiny piles of lumber on the shelf above the rolling station are their most popular product, says Yonah Pena, Jesus’s cousin. “The busy times are Christmas and New Year’s, but we ‘re also very busy in the summer,” said Pena. “A lot of our regulars have been coming here for years, so they prefer our stronger cigars now.”