The Smoker

By Seth McKelvey

To view Charles-Ryan Barber's audio slide show, click the image.

To view Charles-Ryan Barber's audio slide show, click the image.

A murky haze hangs heavy in the air, and the harsh smell of smoke and ashes battles with the sweet scent of hundreds of flavors of unburnt tobacco mingling together. Country music drifts out of the radio and seems to meander about the room, billowing among the extravagant, bubbling hookahs as if the voice of the smoke itself, marrying sight and sound. 

It’s quite the sensory experience just walking into The Smoker’s Den, a tobacco store right in the heart of downtown Athens doubling as a hookah bar. With a little bit of nicotine, all this works together to create an enclave of relaxation and community for smokers.

A large part of this community comes from J.R. Coker, who runs the store on Friday and Saturday nights. Coker is a familiar figure to locals and students, and seems to be widely known as “the old guy who runs Smoker’s Den,” as University student Jason Simpson called him.

“He’s my favorite,” said Simpson. “He’s very talkative to all the customers.” Simpson once went into the store to buy cigarettes with some female friends.  Gazing at the mosaic of cigarette packages lining the walls, his friends noticed some novelty pink cigarettes, and jokingly asked if Coker had ever tried them. According to Simpson, Coker admitted to trying the pink cigarettes, just to test them out. “People started coming in and he had to put it out because he didn’t want them to think he was a queer,” said Simpson.

“Them ol’ women just died laughing at me,” said Coker, thinking back to Simpson’s friends. He described the product in question as “the pinkest damn cigarettes you ever seen, and then with a gold filter.” He wouldn’t admit to ever actually trying them however. “Hell no I wouldn’t smoke one of them damn things, walking around here with a pink cigarette up in your mouth,” he said from under his low-billed hat, his white hair barely peeking out the sides. “They’d think you’re sorta a little bit fruity.”

His gentle face, wrinkled with deep lines from a cigarette habit reaching back to age twelve, is friendly and inviting. His smile, complete with a charismatic missing tooth on the bottom row and a perpetually lit cigarette, seems to welcome anyone and everyone.

“He’s got a great personality,” said Coker’s stepson Mike Horne, who also works at The Smoker’s Den. Horne, who first got Coker the job working at the store, said Coker could talk to anyone. “I’ve never seen anyone he couldn’t get along with,” said Horne.

Coker said when his stepson asked him to take the job, he agreed “just to get away from my old lady.” His wife was working at the time. “She wanted me to keep all the grandkids; I didn’t go for all that mess,” he said with a gravely chuckle. “So, I started working up here.”

He also works part time during the week, cleaning and polishing tile floors, as well as working the odd job or two digging up monkey grass. He said he doesn’t need the money, but works simply for the enjoyment of it. 

Coker grew up in neighboring Oconee County, where he’s lived all his life and still lives today, and said he loves it here.

“A lot of them that come up here know me, I’ll just get out there and cut up with ’em,” he said, explaining how he likes to get to know the regular customers. “If they wanna raise hell, I’ll raise hell with ’em,” he said. “I ain’t a stranger to nobody.” He helps out the customers he gets to know; if one of his regulars shows up after store hours but he’s still there closing up shop, he’ll let them in to get one last pack of cigarettes for the night.

Sitting at one of the hookah tables, Coker taps the ash off his cigarette as a woman walks in with short graying hair and a dirty looking jacket. Without a word she steps up to the front counter and grabs a lighter and begins flicking it repeatedly, staring blankly into the flame. Coker walks up beside her, but she doesn’t notice him. He slams his fist down on the counter with a slight bang, and the woman jumps a little, startled. Finally noticing him, she holds out her hand and drops a handful of change into his. He looks over the change, then back at her without a word. He nods, she gives him a quick hug, and walks out with the lighter.

“She pretends she’s deaf and dumb, and can’t talk,” he explains. “But she can, that’s her gimmick, but she don’t know I know it…I heard her talk.” He said he sees a lot of homeless people using any number of “gimmicks” to get money. He said whenever they approach him, he just tells them he doesn’t carry any personal cash. “I got a gimmick better than they got.”

Though he smokes cigarettes almost exclusively (Salem and Lucky Strike are his favorite), he knows quite a bit about the store’s other products as well. Three college-aged men came in and began to check out the store. One strayed into the cigar humidor, and the second joined him after briefly looking over the hookahs, leaving the last one on his own. Abandoned and alone, the apparent leader of the group asked Coker about salvia, a psychoactive drug legal in most of the United States, including Georgia. 

“How strong is it?” he asked.

“I got some beginner, and I got some that’ll kick your ass,” Coker replied.

He explained to Coker that he had tried a mild version of salvia, but was looking for something a little stronger. Coker was insistent that he had the stuff.

“When I say kick your ass, it’ll kick your ass, don’t take no names.”

The group tried not to appear intimidated by Coker’s big talk, but decided they wouldn’t buy anything until later that night, leaving the store empty-handed.

Coker said he’d seen the effects of salvia enough that he wouldn’t try it himself.

“I like to see ’em when they’re all, ‘Ah I can take this, there ain’t nothing to it,’” he said. “You’ll see ’em flop down on the highway out there, kicked their butts up and down.” Coker said that he would give customers new to salvia just one hit, after which they would pass out for 20 minutes.

“They used to have school up here, the Navy school, and they’d come during the summer, and get out yonder and smoke that stuff, right out yonder and claim that they was hiding,” he said. “You could see them laying all out there during the summer time, after it’d done kicked their butts. But it don’t keep you down but about 20, 25 minutes before it’ll start bringing you back to.”

He also said he’s tried the hookah, but while he’s working he never really has time to sit down long enough to get into it. He’s seen some interesting characters at the hookahs though. “There’s love birds, and then boys sitting around cussing each other, all that just having a ball,” he said. “There’s some just trying to get in a girl’s britches.”

Coker said it’s a wild adventure working a prime-time shift covering the peak bar hours of downtown. “Once they come up here and start getting drunk, all of ’em act the same way,” he said. Once he saw a drunk man buy a hot dog from one of the street vendors outside, and stumble along down the sidewalk past The Smoker’s Den. Coker watched as he fell into the bushes outside his window. “He had that hot dog sticking straight up in the air, and got up, went head on into the rail over here, knocked him down to the sidewalk, but never did lose that hot dog,” Coker said with great amusement. “He finally got up off that sidewalk and started eating that hot dog,” he said. “That old boy, he’s my hero.”

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