Street Smart Chicago

NYE 2007/Still Burning: Wicker Park’s smokers’ haven

City Life, Holidays, Wicker Park Add comments

It’s 11pm on a Friday night and the place is empty. Well, not exactly empty. Two women who look like they’ve wandered off a David Lynch set sit side by side on an orange couch. They’re not drinking. They’re not even talking. They’re just smoking. Four men stand behind the bar. Three of them come over to attend to our drink order. They get it wrong. Twice. Near the back of the cavernous room, a DJ is seemingly unaware that the party is elsewhere. Reverberating unchecked throughout the length of the space, the throbbing music serves only to exacerbate its emptiness. I shoot a quick look of apology to the girl I’ve dragged here and she laughs. “Whatever,” she says gamely. “At least you can smoke.” At that last word, one of the four men snaps to attention, producing a glossy, tri-fold menu from somewhere beneath the bar and launching into a well-rehearsed sales pitch lauding the benefits of artisanal tobacco. When he finally finishes, I ask the question. “Smoking ban?” he repeats, smiling. “Nah, we’re cool. We’ve got it covered.” This is Marshall McGearty’s Tobacco Lounge on Milwaukee Avenue and to say that they have it covered is an understatement. They’ve got help in some very high places.

“R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, this is David Howard’s office,” drawls the voice on the other end of the line. “How can Mr. Howard help you today?” Mr. Howard, a quick Google search reveals, is a spokesperson for the tobacco giant who has been entrusted to address such high-profile problems as the legal battle that is presently underway over a recent Camel sponsored section in Rolling Stone magazine featuring animated images. Lawsuits filed in several states allege that the ad is in violation of a 1998 settlement in which tobacco companies were prohibited from marketing to children. Some estimates put the fines R.J. Reynolds could incur as a result in excess of $100 million. Mr. Howard, in other words, has his hands full.

“Marshall McGearty’s is our lounge,” he explains pleasantly. “That’s why you’ve been directed here.” Opened by R.J. Reynolds in January 2006 in conjunction with the first wave of the smoking ban (timing the company labels “incidental”), Marshall McGearty’s is the brainchild of Jerry Marshall and Larry McGearty. The idea for the lounge is described in a company press release as being born of their shared passion for rare tobaccos and the desire to introduce “unique sanctuaries” in which the product could be enjoyed. The press release also mentions that Marshall is a high-ranking executive at R.J. Reynolds and McGearty is the creative director at Gyro Worldwide, a company known for its guerilla-marketing tactics.

“When the ban goes into effect, we will begin to operate strictly as a tobacco retail shop,” says Howard. That means that tobacco will continue to be sold and can still be consumed on premise. The difference is that lounge will no longer be able to sell liquor, food or beverage. But what about BYOB? “All I’m saying is that we will no longer be selling liquor.”

The bartender is equally vague. “I think we may start BYOB but I don’t know,” he answers. User reviews on the Web site yelp.com indicate that the establishment is already fairly lax when it comes to carrying in outside food. “They don’t seem to mind—as long as it ain’t too smelly,” writes one. So if customers will be able to eat, drink and smoke all in the same place, what does the ban really change for Marshall McGreaty’s?

“Well they might make less money,” says one of the women on the couch, inhaling deeply from a hand-rolled cigarette she purchased at the bar. “Or,” she muses on the exhale, “they might make a whole bunch more.” (Sarah Nardi)

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