THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


PROVIDENCE TALKS: A CONVERSATION WITH ERIC CHAIKA

by by Gillian Brassil

Eric Chaika is a professional tobacconist who runs the Red Carpet Smoke Shop on Waterman Street with his wife, Kim. Bespectacled and friendly, he's the kind of guy who'll explain a tobacco blend, give directions and count his blessings all while ringing you up. This week, perched on a stool in front of a wall of smoking pipes, he spoke to the Independent.

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How long has the smoke shop been here?
My grandparents opened up here in 1962, but they started out in the tobacco industry in 1948.
So they owned a store somewhere else before this one?
Yes, in Kingston, Rhode Island.
When did you know that you were going to carry on the family business?
Well, it skipped a generation; my parents never worked here. Starting when I was very young, though, I worked at the store from time to time. I got a white-collar job when I was still quite young, doing sales for Alfred Dunhill, and it involved a lot of traveling. The first year went fine and dandy. But the second year was really difficult; I found that I couldn't establish a stable relationship with a woman. Some people are well-adapted for the traveling life--I wasn't. So I left that, and did a bunch of odd jobs just to keep bread on the table.
Like what?
Oh, everything from painting to cleaning out funky swimming pools to minor laborer work.
So then you decided the smoke shop was for you?
Well, I knew my grandparents were getting on in years and that there were two options: I could get into the business, or I could let them sell it and they could just get the money and move on. I thought very seriously about it, and well - you see what I decided! I worked happily alongside my grandparents for several years; I think it worked out well for them and it worked out well for me. I've been here for well over thirty years now.
And your wife, Kim, helps you run it?
Yes, she comes in and says, "Hello, how are ya?" and does some very lovely work. And she designed our business cards herself! We're Mom and Pop, we're a true mom-and-pop business.
How'd you meet her?
She's my second wife. I met her sometime during the process of my divorce, and at first it was strictly as friends. She was the kind of person you'd walk the dog with, go get coffee with, really someone just to talk to. But as it developed, it became more than that!
Any kids?
Not together, no. We're getting a little long in the tooth for kids. I'm looking forward to grandkids, though, God willing. I've got two sons and a stepson.
Do you think one of them will take over the business someday?
Absolutely not. All of them are involved in their own things. I'll tell you, I got lucky in the son department and lucky in the stepson department. Stepsons come with territory, and I happen to like mine. All three boys are just good, square--by which I mean forthright--people who understand that other people have to eat and breathe and live, too.
I find that a rare commodity among young people. I find it a rare commodity among people, actually. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about, people that think the sun, moon and stars all revolve around them, that other people are just background noise. Unless you're in their close circle of friends, you're no more than a wall or a telephone.
Do you like your job?
Ninety percent of the time I enjoy what I do. I feel that I'm good at it, one of the few real professionals in this industry.
What's the other ten percent of the time?
Oh, everybody has a day where it's a drag. Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you. Retail is a hard business-- vacations are hard or impossible to come by. And if you're looking to make anything other than a living, it's not the business for you. The thing is though, if you've got that living, a few luxuries, can get dinner out every once in a while or go to a show and not have to worry--man, you've got it all! Things beyond that are--pardon the phrase--bullshit.
What do you want to do when you eventually retire?
Oh, God. I'd love to be healthy enough to be able to travel. I used to travel a lot; I traveled by thumb all over the country and Canada.
Any favorite places?
No, no favorites. Each place has its own story. But see, this was a different time, it was the early 1970s. In those days we thought there was a new world coming--we were wrong. We really thought we were the first wave of a kinder, gentler world. In Canada, there were youth hostels for fifty cents a night, sometimes you'd get a little bowl of cereal included. And you could go to jails and they'd let you stay in a cell overnight if you needed a place. It was a different world.
Well, since travel's out, what would you do to occupy your retired time?
I read fairly broadly and do lots of writing. And calligraphy. They're all avocations rather than vocations--I actually just finished my first illustrated book. It came out to my satisfaction, which is the only reason I wrote it.
Are you being affected by the economy at all?
It's difficult to sort out what's due to anti-tobacco stuff and what's due to the economy. You know, if I were selling drug paraphernalia, what-the-hell's-it-called, salvia, I would have no threats to my livelihood. But because I'm selling this old American, New-World crop--that was actually a huge part of the development of this country--that adults make a choice to use, I've got constant threats to my business. The idea of live and let live is gone, man.
There's some tobacco-related taxes going into effect April 1 that'll affect you, right?
There's one category of merchandise that was really killed for us, due to increased taxes on rolling tobacco. The tax is now $25 a pound, up from $1.10. And rolling papers are now taxed $3.50 for 50 leaves. So essentially the roll-your-own business was demolished. I suspect--though I have no proof of this--that lobbyists for Phillip Morris are responsible for a lot of this, since they've historically been able to protect their own interests. Just an educated guess.
Do you think tobacco stores are a dying breed because of all the regulations?
I think businesses of this nature are an endangered species. But mom-and-pops in general are an endangered species--which is a real tragedy, because there's so much potential in living, face-to-face relationships with people, where you develop human contact, where you learn, where you enjoy doing something other than ringing at the register. Don't get me wrong, I love ringing at the register too! But mom-and-pop stores are about so much more. There are people who come in here not to buy anything, but just to say hello.
I'm so thankful that I'm still able to have this oasis; the spirit of my grandparents still lives here. It's away from the rat race, the hustle-bustle. It's a place where you can let down your hair, swap jokes, bust chops. It used to be always be like that--you'd talk to your butcher, or at the deli, but there aren't that many places like that anymore. These days, the venues for personal connection are mediated electronically. But there's something really different about actually seeing someone: their body language, seeing if their eyes sparkle. Men--and I mean all of humankind--we're not designed to live this way. We're designed to be active and social, not passive and isolated. There's a whole mess of problems as a result--the whole social fabric has really been ripped.
So you believe that things are really going downhill, then? Or are things getting better?
Neither of the two! Nobody knows what the future will bring, but things will change. In some ways, though, I think the United States is making the right changes. Race still matters, but it matters less: that's progress. Gender still matters, but it matters less: that's progress, too. It's all working in a direction that's more human.
Well, as long as we're on this political train--and since we're surrounded by cigars--I've got to ask what you think of the embargo against Cuba.
Oh, the embargo's stupid, just plain stupid! And not just because of cigars. We do business with every dictator in the world, we even support some of them, and we choose to ignore this one tiny island ninety miles away? Does that make sense to you?
In your thirty years of working here, what's changed: about the shop, about Providence?
This shop hasn't changed a whole heck of a lot. But Thayer Street has. It used to be all mom-and-pops. And look at it now, it's the Thayer Street food court. It used to be that this neighborhood served the local community instead of just the college community. You could get anything you needed on Thayer Street, and things you didn't need that were still fun to have.
Have you ever thought about living somewhere else? Or is Providence it for you?
I'm getting tired of the winter. But as to where I'd want to go, I'll make that decision when the time comes. I'll do the right things today and tomorrow will have to take care of itself. You never know what's gonna happen, and I'm not going to try to push the river.
GILLIAN BRASSIL B'12 tries all too often to push the river.