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For cigar lovers, a refuge in downtown Stamford

STAMFORD - Smoke and conversation tend to unfurl simultaneously inside a softly lit room tucked behind a Bank Street cigar shop called the Connecticut Cigar Company.

On a recent drizzling Wednesday night, five members of the store's cigar club relaxed around a marble table, alternating between raucous laughter and languid reflection.

Cloaked in a light smoky haze, the lounge evoked the feel of a sophisticated bachelor pad. The dark green walls were adorned with framed art nouveau posters and a pair of flat screen televisions set to mute.

"There is meaning behind all this," said Michael Numa, 51, a longtime member who lives in Norwalk. "It's about companionship and bonding."

He meant everyone except, perhaps, for the harried-looking attorney who spent most of the evening combing his hand through his hair and barking into a cell phone on what appeared to be a business matter. As he sank into a plush black couch, he seemed a million miles away from the fraternity by the table.

But as owner Nick Casinelli pointed out, the lounge is designed to suit every member's needs.

Started in December 2007 by Casinelli and Peter Falcetti, The Connecticut Cigar Company is considered home to one of the largest cigar lounges in Fairfield County. Falcetti arrived at the concept after hanging out at cigar bars and lounges that sprouted across Manhattan in the late 1990's. Stamford, with its stable of financial executives, made sense as a location.

Today, the lounge, which is part of the store, has 23 official members. There are several levels of memberships. The most basic tier - which entitles members to a shared humidified cigar locker and use of the lounge - costs $600 a year.

The market for cigar-friendly establishments is a result of stricter smoking laws and a resurgence in sales. The number of cigars sold, especially hand-rolled versions, has picked up steadily since the mid-1990s, according to the Cigar Association of America. Norman Sharp, president of the organization, said 5.6 billion cigars were sold last year in the United States.

Casinelli said business at his cigar shop has doubled since last year.

Members said being part of the club gave them a sense of belonging.

"It gives you a sense of purpose, camaraderie and ownership," said Scott Gregory, 46, the longest member.

The tax director moved to Stamford three years ago from Kentucky when his company moved to Greenwich.

"Being new, I didn't know anyone," he said.

He stumbled across the lounge on a snowy night in February, and found a venue in which he could make friends.

He and several others stressed that relationships among cigar smokers typically transcend class and social background.

"You can be a construction worker or a CEO. People don't differentiate your socioeconomic status," said Numa, who works in technology.

He recalled a recent trip to Block Island where he spotted three cigar smokers on a pier and walked over without hesitation.

"I didn't know them," he said. "But I shared a connection with them."

Casinelli, who previously worked as a talent scout for two major record labels, said cigar lovers are like music fans.

"If you love a band and you're wearing their T-shirt, suddenly two strangers are bonding," he said. "It's the same with cigars."

Gender has proven to be a more difficult barrier to break. Casinelli sells flavored cigars, which are thought to be appealing to women smokers. But so far, the club has no female members.

On occasion, women drop by, as two of them did that night. Friends of Casinelli, neither smokes.

"He's created the kind of environment where you feel like you're in somebody's apartment," said Karen Krondes.

As the night wore on, the party seemed to pick up steam. The raspy-voiced coo of Norah Jones was replaced with the smooth croon of Frank Sinatra.

On the back wall, the hands of a clock were frozen on 20 minutes to 11. One of the members, George Mitchell, looked up at it and smiled. It's the reason, he said, why the lounge never reaches closing time.

Source: The advocate