By Richard O Jones
The First Ward Cigar Store opened in 1917 and hasn’t been closed a day since.
Not even Thanksgiving and Christmas. Not even during the worst blizzards this city has ever known. Sometimes it wasn’t open for the whole day, but it was always open every day.
It was more than a business practice.
It was a point of pride.
It was on the sign.
It ends this week.
On Thursday Tom’s First Ward Cigar Store will not open as usual, and will never open again.
At 10 a.m. Saturday, Doug Ross will auction off all of the fixtures and any remaining merchandise.
“Things change,” said owner Joe Wright, “so we’ll close up, plywood the windows and move on down the road.”
According to a 1975 newspaper article, Alex Robertson founded the First Ward Cigar Store on North B Street where J. Austin’s Riverbank Cafe’s parking lot is now. It moved across B Street, now the bridge ramp, for a time before moving to the corner of Main and B, then to 107 Main Street.
Owners through the years included Drewery Pace, John Burns, Bob Wheelright, Cliff Kern and Stuart Curtis.
Then Tom Eggleston started coming around.
Eggleston had worked at Beckett Paper after the war and started buying and selling things as a sideline, would often take items to the First Ward Cigar Store to make a deal, then ended up buying the place, Wright said. That was in 1948.
In 1958, Eggleston moved the shop a bit further up Main Street to the storefront that became the Rossville Inn after Eggleston made one final move to the current location in January 1966 and put his first name on the sign, too.
Eggleston took on his son-in-law Joe Wright as a partner in 1965 to get ready for a move into the the final location, which had been built in 1959. Until the Family Dollar Store moved in across the street, it was the newest building in the neighborhood, Wright said. It was first an office building, home to the engineering department for the Bendix Corporation, then a pool hall for a while. There are still remnants of the light fixtures over the tables. Then a restaurant supplier did business there just before the First Ward Cigar Store moved in through a hole that Wright and Eggleston cut in the wall to eliminate the need to open and close doors or negotiate the sidewalk.
“It was built strong enough to add two more stories on,” Wright said, so it was no problem making the move.
The store’s sales were mostly cigars and newspapers until Eggleston got hold of it.
“Tom was your original entrepreneur,” Wright said. “He would buy and sell just about anything if he figured he could make a buck on it. Back in the day, they ran jar tickets — a jar with a bunch of tickets in it, you could draw one and win all kinds of stuff. Back in the Fifties you could get by with that stuff. He’d go to auctions and bring stuff in. Sometimes, somebody instead of having an estate sale would just call us and we’d just go out and buy the whole mess, drag it in here and sell it. Used tools. We had a table in the corner all was ever on, used hand tools. At one time we bought and sold guns until somebody broke in and stole them all a third time, then I quit that. It takes a lot for me to learn a lesson.”
The word around Hamilton used to be that if Tom’s didn’t have it, you didn’t need it, and you never knew what you might need until you went in and looked around.
“One time, I drug two big aerial cameras out of an Air Force plane and brought them in here,” Wright said. Military surplus was a Tom’s staple. “I thought two guys were going to have a fist fight over them.
The store still sold cigars and newspapers, and in the Sixties was the only place in town to find a Louisville Courier Journal if one wanted to keep up with the horse races.
“We used to have a big magazine collection, but that went away when grocery stores started selling them,” Wriht said. “We’d sell 200 Cincinnati Enquirers on a Sunday back in the day when you still had to stuff all the ads inside. I remember coming in here at 5 a.m. on a Sunday to stuff the papers before we opened.”
“We had sidewalk sales in Hamilton. We would get ready for that for six weeks and I’d have employees come back who had worked for us when they were kids in high school and beg to work sidewalk sales because they had so much fun,” he said. “We did all kinds of crazy stuff. We put Kevin Loving in a casket on the sidewalk with the sign ‘Tom’s Is Burying High Prices’.”
“Things change,” Wright said. People quit coming to Main Street to do business. Magazines and newspapers are all but gone. People are not smoking as much. Now business is just cigarettes and lottery tickets.
“There’s no profit in tobacco,” Wright said. “We have to sell at state minimums, so we have a profit of 14 percent. The lottery you work on 5 percent.”
Then there’s the vandalism and the thefts. The store was broken into three times in 2014, twice this year, Wright said. Although he’s got some long-time, loyal employees, he’s fired three people this year for stealing. The front windows get broken so often that Scofield’s keeps the glass on hand, cut and ready to go.
“Then the city came down on me. They wanted me to put a new roof on here, a new ceiling. They want me to do about sixty or seventy thousand dollars worth of work on this place. I don’t have the money to do that. I haven’t take a dime out of here in ten years. I kept it open to sell it or to take care of the employees. I have employees who have been with me for thirty-plus years.
“I kept the place open thinking that somebody would come along and continue it.”
That hasn’t happened, and there aren’t any real prospects.
“After a while, it just gets to be too much,” he said. “The place has got a lot of history.”
Now it is history.
“I worked here eight years, a week short of nine,” said Theresa Jenkins quietly as she closed up one recent evening. “I love these people, but it looks like I need a new job.”
Emily Simer Braun contributed to this report.
Additional information: “Tom’s Cigar Store: Open 365 Days a Year Since 1917,” Hamilton Journal-News, June 29, 1975,