The contemporary adage “What happens in Vegas … stays in Vegas” has been modified for numerous situations and scenarios.
But for Miles Johnston and Jay Staley – co-owners of Cliff’s Smoke Shop, 140 N. 12th St. – the saying has a direct application to their tobacconist business.
There are just too many stories that should not be repeated publicly, the pair says.
Celebrating its 60th anniversary this past August, Cliff’s Smoke Shop claims the honor of being the oldest continuously operating smoke shop in Nebraska, and perhaps the region, according to Johnston and Staley.
The business was started in 1953 by Cliff Thoene in the lobby of the four-story Lindell Hotel at 13th and M streets. In 1968 Thoene – who was the brother of Charles Thone, Nebraska’s 34th governor (who changed the spelling of his last name) – moved the smoke shop to a 12th and O streets location.
It was a tiny “sliver” of a shop selling tobacco products and gifts, says Johnston.
Acquiring some additional space, Thoene added a bar to the establishment in 1969. He moved the shop – selling cigars, pipe tobacco, cigarettes and accessories – to its current location in 1985.
Thoene passed away in 1999, and the smoke shop had an intervening owner for nearly three years before Johnston and Staley purchased the business in 2001.
Johnston, who had practiced law for a period, had a relationship with Thoene as his attorney. Staley’s business background included haberdashery sales at Gold’s and Magee’s, followed by involvement in the liquor industry at Jax Shack and The Cellar.
Walking into Cliff’s, one is usually greeted by a gently (or not so gently) barbed comment from the acerbic Johnston, often with a pipe’s stem clinched between his teeth. A cigar smoker, Staley regularly watches the shop two or three afternoons a week.
Offering customers the choice of some 300-plus different cigars or numerous pipe tobacco blends, Cliff’s also has somewhat the ambiance of a smoker’s museum.
Cigar boxes – from years past to the current – adorn shelves above customers’ heads, while vintage photos and clippings are posted on the walls. A large carved wooden eagle pays homage to the Pepperberg Cigar Factory, which had operated at Eighth and O streets from 1908 to the early 1930s. There is even a black-and-white photo of Staley as an infant with a corn cob pipe – although it is sort of hidden behind other memorabilia.
Johnston said that despite taxes, smoking bans and other restrictions, Cliff’s business has tripled since he and Staley took over the smoke shop. “And,” he continues, “our business is double that of the national average (for smoke shops).”
But while the business component is certainly an important factor, Johnston and Staley acknowledge another important role that Cliff’s serves. It is a place where people can assemble on a common ground, engage in conversation and exchange ideas and beliefs. A place where discussion of any topic is welcomed and appreciated, they say.
“From business professionals and college students and faculty to regular guys on the street to politicos, we see them all,” Johnston said.
To celebrate the shop’s 60th anniversary, Johnston and Staley threw a party for its regular customers this past August on the patio of The Lodge at Wilderness Ridge. Local musician Pat Glenn provided the entertainment.
But what about all those “stories” that could not be spoken of?
Staley gets an impish grin and remarks that although it’s rather tame, there is one sort of embarrassing story involving Johnston.
Grumbling a bit, Johnston relates that one night he was closing up the shop and was in a rush to get home. He closed up Cliff’s and left, only to get a call from the police after he was home. It seems that in his haste to leave, there had been a customer in the shop’s cigar humidor who ended up locked in the shop. Johnston had to return and let him out.
Johnston had no comment as to whether the captive customer had helped himself to a cigar for the inconvenience.
What happens at Cliff’s … stays at Cliff’s, for 60 years and continuing.