I visit Maison Edwards Tobacco at least once a week, not only because of its countless premium cigars — Padrón 1926s are my favorite — but because it preserves a timeless atmosphere athwart the otherwise overpowering wave of modernity that has engulfed many other businesses in Ann Arbor.
Chuck Ghawi, the welcoming proprietor since 1991, is responsible for Maison Edwards’s embrace of tradition. As you step through the sturdy wooden-frame door, you are greeted by a prominent American flag suspended above the back counter. Vintage tobacco advertisements remind me of the rich and storied history of the American tobacco industry.
In the front window there is a poster on which Ronald Reagan (yes, the actor!) tells you with a toothy grin that four out of five doctors smoke Camels. Behind the front desk, there is a faded but detailed illustration of Civil War hero Admiral David Farragut promoting what is advertised to be his own tobacco brand.
Black-and-white photographs of former Vice President Thomas Marshall, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Chuck’s dad adorn the walls, and above the large wooden doorway, a vintage Zippo clock keeps time in a relaxing fashion, emitting a dim, almost neon glow reminiscent of a fifties drive-in. The classic display cases, some having found their way from the old Saks Fifth Avenue on State Street, evoke a simpler time.
Wooden chairs, thoughtfully placed beside a small table and an old-fashioned metal milk jug (serving as an ashtray), beckon patrons to take a seat, relax, and embark on an exploration of flavors while engaging in stimulating conversations.
I have met two professors, a pediatrician, a priest, an engineer, and a few graduate students. Most recently I had the privilege of talking to a Russian fellow who gave his opinions on poetry, politics, and foreign policy; he even showed me a video of an ill-tempered former member of the Duma, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, claiming he would use “science” to sink the United States.
The priest told stories of his visit to Vatican City. He recalled the relics of the Apostles he had been able to see, the caves with the carvings of martyrs and saints, the time he had walked to 40 different churches for 40 different days (no small feat in and around Rome), and finally, a story in which he was mistaken by the Swiss Guard for a bishop and was treated with special honors. When you go to Maison Edwards you have no idea whom you are going to meet or what you’ll hear.
The heart of Maison Edwards is the walk-in humidor. There you will find a vast array of selections: tobacco from the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, and even Connecticut. Cigars range from 6 to 44 dollars. There are more than a dozen brands, two dozen blends, and three dozen shapes and sizes; Chuck can answer almost any question about every one. Maison Edwards maintains a constant temperature of 70 degrees, a comfortable climate ideal for preserving loose tobacco and cigars.
It is common for Chuck to remember your name, a few of your preferences, and even the cigar he suggested during your last visit. Chuck’s earnest and enthusiastic interactions with patrons amid the store’s vintage ambiance transform this establishment into a gem in the impersonal landscape of business in Ann Arbor.
This wonderful gem, an homage to a simpler time, stands in stark relief against the business background of Ann Arbor. With a few notable exceptions, I feel as if every time I walk into a store in this city I have greatly inconvenienced the staff. The owner is nowhere to be seen and the employees, demotivated by meager wages and sparse leadership, have nothing to motivate them.
Most buildings off campus look as if they were carved out of a (sometimes chrome) cinder block and decorated by the “visionaries” of the World Economic Forum, but they are fully digitalized, equipped with iPads demanding at least an 18 percent tip for pouring a cup of coffee.
Maison Edwards is more than a place to purchase cigars. It’s a sanctuary for those who seek the simple pleasure of a warm environment and the enduring charm of personal connections.