One of our photographers approached me the other day and announced that someone was working on the old National Cigar Store on Main Street, just a few doors down from the Coney Island hot dog stand.
In its peculiar way, that sounded like good news. The shop, which had been run by a man named Frank Bell for decades, went out of business several years ago. The door with one little window had been locked and that was it.
I was in for a surprise, though. Yes, a contractor had gone to work in a building and was replacing the floor. Word had it the building had also gotten a new roof, but it wasn’t the National Cigar Store.
The building in question had once housed a bar, and then a shop that dealt in collectibles and, once upon a time, some illicit activities. The current owner, Jimmy Todoran, who also owns Coney Island, was shoring up the place with no particular immediate plans for it.
The cigar store is actually next door, and through the crack in the curtains in the front window, which now contains only a portion of the word National, is somewhat worse for wear after having sat empty for several years.
The counter that once lined one wall – where workers, the guys who did heavy lifting for a living, would show up at 5 a.m. for breakfast – was now long gone, as were the tables and chairs. Now there’s nothing but the leftovers of what happens when the contents of a building are torn out. Insulation hangs from the framework of what was once a suspended ceiling.
Todoran said he’s inquired about buying the building but has received no response from the owner.
I’d only been in the National Cigar Store once or twice in my years in Fort Wayne. A co-worker once pointed it out to me, years ago, and said he thought it was a bookie joint.
He wasn’t entirely wrong. Men used to play poker for a quarter a hand there, or pinochle for a dollar a game, small-time stuff. Supposedly there were baseball pools and other types of pools where people could win a small payoff on a small bet.
If you had just gotten out of jail and been given a check to reimburse you for whatever cash you had on you when you went into the klink, the cigar store was where you went to cash it and get the money to find your way home.
The last time I was there was in 2008. It was not as dingy as its present condition but pretty dingy by most standards.
Frank Bell was just getting ready to close up shop. Business was slow. The place was empty, save for one customer who came in, asked if the biscuits and gravy were fresh, ordered some, and then sent them back when he discovered they were still frozen.
All his customers had gotten old or died or been chased off by the smoking ban, Bell said, and his last best hope had just been dashed. Authorities had raided the place and taken the Cherry Master video poker machines that kept him afloat.
That’s when Bell locked the door, August 2008, just before the stock market crashed, ending an era.
Bell died about six months ago. I wonder where people go to cash their checks when they get out of jail these days.
Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, fax at 461-8893, or email at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.