Tom’s Cigar Store becomes another piece of Americana up in smoke

Joe Wright probably feels all wrong this morning.

He has lost his best friend of 50 years. It’s difficult to say goodbye, even to an aging building in a rundown neighborhood.

Since Wright started working at Tom’s Cigar Shop in 1965 — six years after he graduated from Hamilton High School — the store at 135 Main St. has been a part of his life.

No, make that his life.

“Everything comes to an end,” the 73-year-old concluded. “We used to be the go-to place in Hamilton for whatever you needed: a nut, a bolt, a light bulb. You name it, we had it.”

It’s been quite a run at Tom’s, which was open 365 days a year for 98 years, or 35,868 consecutive days. Alex Robertson opened the business in 1917, the same year the United States entered into World War I, and it has moved four times in Hamilton, and has been owned by about 10 people, including Tom Eggleston, who bought it in 1947.

The business survived two world wars, the Great Depression, and blizzards, but now — 98 years after its birth — its obituary is being written.

Wright believes next to Butler County Lumber, Tom’s Cigar Shop is the oldest business in the city.

“I tried to make it to 100,” Wright said while sitting in his cluttered office as last-minute shoppers browsed the store last week. “I really did.”

Then he shook his head, glanced through those hindsight glasses, and added: “I should have closed 10 years ago. You can’t make it on the margins in the Lottery and tobacco. It doesn’t work.”

The last decade has drained Wright’s will and his bank account. He pumped more money into the business than the store generated. You do that long enough and you’re broke. A lesson business majors are taught the first day of school.

“Back when we were making money it was fun,” he said. “The last few years, it hasn’t been fun.”

Still, Wright wanted to remain open to take care of his long-time employees and loyal customers.

Wright said his business never recovered from the $13 million High Main Street Bridge that was completed in 2007. When traffic was detoured during construction, his customers found other places to shop. They never returned, those people of habit.

Now, another piece of Americana is gone, joining countless other family owned stores around the country. There was a time, before color TV, big box stores and the Internet, when grocery stores were tucked away in every neighborhood. In those mom and pop stores, the owners cashed customer checks every pay day, everyone was on a first-name basis, and the only thing that flowed faster than those ice cold Cokes were the town tales.

Rumors that started in the barbershop were repeated in the grocery stores.

Tom’s began as a newsstand and tobacco store, then evolved into a general store that sold anything, everything, if there was a buck to be made. Wright searched estate sales for used tools and factories for surplus inventory. You had to stop by Tom’s periodically just to see what Wright had picked up.

When the paper industry was thriving in Hamilton, as a way to accommodate the shift workers, Tom’s was open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. That time must seem like forever ago.

“Those were back in the good days,” he said. “The neighborhood has changed, the city has changed and peoples’ shopping habits have changed.”

He remembers when the store carried four newspapers: The Hamilton Journal News, Cincinnati Enquirer, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune, some delivered on a train. He sold hundreds of newspapers every day. On Thursday, the day after the store was scheduled to close, no papers were delivered, breaking a streak that stretched nearly a century.

And now, for the first time since he graduated from high school, Wright will search through a newspaper’s classified ads.

He needs a job.

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