When General Manager Mark Faulkner says Black Bull (306 Chartres St., 527-6021) isn't the average cigar shop he's not just blowing smoke.
You don't really notice the shelves of premium cigars until you're halfway into the cozy shop on the upper end of the French Quarter. On the way, visitors can feast their eyes and their imaginations on the unique and sometimes rare artifacts owner Bill Crenshaw has collected from Africa, Tibet, Mexico and elsewhere. There's also a selection of paintings from local artists and other gift and collectible items, including decorated cigar box purses crafted by some entrepreneurial high schoolers.
"We like to represent local artists when we can," says Faulkner. "We want to help the locals out and have them help us out. But it has to be exceptional and different."
The focus of the shop, however, is fine cigars imported from all over and representing the major brands as well as Black Bull's special stogies that come from a plantation in the Dominican Republic and another in San Andreas, Mexico. Another large draw, even for non-cigar smokers, is the store's offerings of coffee, expresso and teas, which Faulkner says will hold their own against other competitors in the city. "We have the finest coffee in the Quarter -- a couple of varieties -- and we have very good expresso."
The Black Bull experience, however, is about more than just caffeine and aromatic tobacco. It's also about relaxing in the easy chairs situated throughout the business, discovering new cigars with a different taste or just basking in the eclectic. Over one sitting area is a giant stuffed Cape buffalo head and a jackal (smoking a cigar) opposite a taxidermed longhorn steer head. Next to the easy chair are a lighted stand ashtray, exotic carved wood artifacts and beaded wall hangings. All over the walls, particularly behind the counter, are autographed photographs of movie stars including Steven Seagal, an acquaintance of Crenshaw, and others.
The unsigned photo of a beagle named Beagle -- the store's unofficial honorary manager -- may say more about the staff's attitude however. Beagle, and a couple of other friendly canines, have made their way into the cigar shop and adopted it. Faulkner ventures that it's the welcoming atmosphere that has kept locals coming back to the shop.
"We're doing great," he says of the 9-month-old establishment. "We have an awful lot of regulars who come in for the coffee, and we get repeat business from people who come in to buy one cigar and come back the next day for a box." The store also supplies cigars to customers through mail order. "As much as the tourists help business, you need to have the regulars and we plan special things to draw in the locals."
Such events include wine tastings, in which customers can sip local vintages from Pontchartrain Vineyards, New Orleans Rum and BV Wines, or locally brewed beers.
Black Bull doesn't currently sell alcoholic beverages, but customers are welcome to bring in their own. The shop does plan to offer liquor in the future, but Faulkner says it will be limited to a few selections of wine and premium beers. "We don't want to be a bar or a place where someone comes in to get sloshed," Faulkner says.
The same attitude goes for special screenings and broadcasts of Saints games and Tulane sporting events. For the Tulane games, the shop will offer a special cigar selection replete with a Tulane logo band. For both, Faulkner says the shop will provide a comfortable place to have a drink, relax with a cigar and watch the game. "We don't want to be a sports bar," he says. "We want to be an alternative to that. It will be a bastion where you can drink, watch the game and not have a drunk dump beer in your lap."
Another aspect of the shop that makes first-time shoppers regulars is the staff, which is as eclectic and interesting as the artwork. Faulkner, who used to own Crescent City Magic Shop, is a musician, and Crenshaw not only is an entrepreneur but a screenwriter. Other employees include a magician, an art promoter and an actor. "It makes for interesting conversations," Faulkner says. "We have a wide variety of opinions that people are willing to unload on you. The talk is not all about cigars."
They do, however, try to steer customers into new directions with cigars or help them find exactly the taste that's right for them. "We're not a cigar shop that waits around for you to make a decision," he says. "We want to help."
The crux of the business' success is offering a range of cigar tastes and brands at prices that are competitive with all the other shops in the city. "We have a good target," Faulkner says. "We have certain tastes that we want to cover, but we don't want to be redundant. As far as I know, we have the best prices in the French Quarter and are competitive with those outside the Quarter."
In addition to tobacco products and artworks, customers will find Colibri and other brands of lighters and cigar tools, logo T-shirts, baskets, pipe tobacco and more.
"We're a place where people can get a good deal on cigars, have a great cup of coffee and a comfortable place to enjoy both," Faulkner says.
- Mark Faulkner takes a moment to enjoy the wares at the cozy Black Bull cigar shop in the French Quarter.