South Side Cigar Stores by Gary Staffo
This article came about as part of the research started for the Southside Veteran’s Recognition Project, which was displayed during the September 2013 Southside Reunion. It covers the period from the 1930s through the mid-1970s and the role three Southside cigar stores played in the lives of the young men who grew up hanging out around them. The first of the three “hangouts” was Tommie’s Smoke Shop, which was owned by Tommie Yanno and was originally located on East Jefferson Street during the mid to late 1920s. This store later moved to 11 Flint Avenue and became our article’s second establishment, Staffos Cigar Store, which operated until about 1952. The last was Masle’s Cigar Store, owned by Larry Masle from the late 1940s until the mid-1970s at 407 South Ann Street.
The photo shows Tommie’s Smoke Shop’s sign after it had relocated to Flint Avenue in the early 1930s. In this photo the sign is facing north/south with the Lift Bridge in the background. (Note; Similar “pool halls” such as Foxy’s, Bride’s, Wally’s and Charlie’s were located on the north side of the Mohawk River in Little Falls.)
The first part of this article discusses the role that the cigar stores played in shaping young men’s lives and some of the mystique about what went on in them.
The article’s second part focuses on the World War II period and Staffos Cigar Store. This part includes excerpts from postcards and letters sent home from the cigar store boys, and how these once primary sources for young men’s social and recreational personal friendships gradually faded away.
The Role of Cigar Stores for Young Men
During the 1930’s through the mid-1970s, the local cigar stores played an important role in the coming of age for many young men in Little Falls. Tommie’s, Staffos and Masle’s Cigar Stores were a major part of these young men’s formative teenage years. This was especially true during World War II as it was the place from where these young men went off to war, and one of the first places they went to when they came home.
These were the years when friendships were for life, which started in youth when most of your free time was spent with your pals. During this period Jefferson Street School provided an education for all “Southsiders” from Kindergarten to Grade 6. When not in school most boys had work to do around home or for others, but when not working they engaged in sports, games and other outside activities year round. Junior and Senior High School followed and the “Southsiders” made the transition to Benton Hall and Little Falls High School, where the sports teams had a healthy contingent of Southside athletes. It was during their early teen years that these young men moved from hanging around outside the cigar store to trying to get inside past the front store area, and into the back room where the pool tables were located and the card games were played.
Cigar Store “Gangs”
Cigar stores were the first real “man caves” and a second home to many young men. It was where they caught up on all the local news and a place where they were very comfortable and shared their opinions, dreams and problems. At that time it was also where they learned the facts of life across all areas.
The rite of passage of getting past the front store area to the sacred back room was a challenging and mysterious process of trial and error which did not seem to have any logic. To these young men it became a badge of an earned acceptance by not only the owner, but also by those who were already so privileged. Although it was rumored that there was a local law or ordinance that required a youth to be at least 16 years of age to enter a pool hall, some entered younger while some were not allowed until later. Big brothers and cousins were notorious for keeping younger brothers and related youth out of the back room. In some cases it may have been well-intentioned, but in many instances it was to protect their own privacy and to ensure that a little brother or cousin did not accidentally spill the beans about something that the parents or family would not approve of.
It was here, in this teenage sanctuary, that young men told tall tales and the newly admitted kept quiet, but with ears wide open listening to the “older” men as if they were prophets with sage advice for success in all areas. This was especially true when it came to advice about the ladies, for there was a continuing and growing attraction for the opposite sex that displaced earlier priorities of sports, food and drink.
Friendly rivalries, teasing and kidding around were demonstrated openly and often, and in many cases led to nicknames that often stuck with a person from youth through adulthood. The stories behind nicknames is an article in itself, but it is important here because during the World War II years correspondence from these young men to the “cigar store gang” reads like a code, with many nicknames used and requiring translation.
Let’s end this first part by defining “gang” and noting how it was used. At that time “gang” was understood by all to mean a group of guys having an informal and common association of hanging out together at a cigar store. It meant a friendly group, although somewhat untamed, without nefarious designs. This photo portrays fourteen dashing young men, part of the “Tommie’s Smoke Shop Gang” outside the Staffos Cigar Store in the mid-1930s. In the first row the 2nd and 3rd boys from the left are two brothers, “Matchy” and “Chick” Staffo, who will be heard from later.
Staffos Cigar Store
Staffos Cigar Store was run by two Staffo brothers, Rock and Mike, who took over Tommie’s sometime in the mid-1930s and operated it until the early 1950s. Photos from the early 1930s show an overhead sign “Tommie’s Smoke Shop” (that at some time later was repainted to say “Mike’s Smoke Shop”), and “Tommie’s” on the window of the store. This photo, taken circa mid-1930s, shows Mike Staffo wearing a “Staffos Cigar Store” T-Shirt alongside Mossy Eysamen. (Note; Although Staffo’s is grammatically correct, we use Staffos to be historically consistent with how used during this period for the shirt and mail) This photo started my Staffos Cigar Store research in 2013 and resulted in my finding the “Mike’s Smoke Shop” sign stored inside at 11 Flint Avenue.
The Role of Staffos Cigar Store
As previously stated, during the years of World War II, the Korean War, and on into the 1970s, cigar stores played an important role in the coming of age of many young men in Little Falls. On the Southside, Staffos Cigar Store at 11 Flint Avenue was a central gathering place for neighborhood young men. During World War II it was the place from where they went off to war and one of the first places they returned to when they came home.
In the June 1943 photo above taken at the store, John “Matchy” Staffo, standing front row center, poses with five other Southside friends just before they all headed overseas. It is important to note that preceding World War II over 75% of the United States population had never ventured more than fifty miles from where they were born and raised. World War II would take these “pool hall boys” thousands of miles from home to countries and cultures they may have never have heard of, or only read about. For many of them it would be years before they returned, and a few who would sadly never come home.
Excerpts from World War II Postcards and Letters in the Staffo Family
As I quote from some of the letters I will try to identify individuals where only nicknames are used.
From my Uncle John “Matchy” Staffo in a postcard addressed to “Staffos Cigar Store”, mailed October 27, 1941 from Trenton, New Jersey.
“Hi Gang! Boy did we have fun yesterday nite (Sat.) The trucks, ten of em, took us 18 miles to Trenton for a free dance given by the Y.W.C.A. *Woppy [Lanza] and Satchel [Renzulli] should have been there – 4 girls to 1 soldier, you couldn’t miss there. They gave us cider and doughnuts. It must have made some guys sick. The beer is pretty good down here but I’ve had only about 20 since I’ve been here. Had K.P. four days in a row for raising hell. Wed –Sat. *I put that mark there because that’s where I stopped to go to church. It’s not hurting me I guess. [Signed] “Matchy” [p.s.] “Did Jap [Terzi] and his gang hit the road yet? Write a card.”
From my Uncle Angelo “Chaut” Staffo (386th Bomb Group, 554th Bomb Squadron) in a postcard addressed to Staffos Smoke Shop,” mailed January 11, 1943 from Miami, Florida.
“Hi Gang: Well here I am in the sunny south. Boy you ought to see this place, beautiful scenery, beautiful beach, and also beautiful babes. Just got my G.I. haircut, boy what a clipping, I have more hair on my arms than on my head. So long – Chaut.”
Not only did the “Gang” write home, but on the home front family, friends and Southside merchants sent letters and packages to their boys. These were greatly anticipated and deeply appreciated, especially overseas after having had first hand combat experiences.
From my dad, Nicholas “Chick” Staffo (HQ Cannon Company, 24th Infantry Division, 21st Regiment) in a letter home dated August 14, 1944, from New Guinea.
“. . . We also got some American candy for a change, baby Ruths, butterfingers and Hersheys. They sure were a sight for sore eyes, getting this candy and beer may not mean anything to you, but to me it was a God send. A fellow doesn’t mind it so much if he is given treats like that once in a while . . .”
From my uncle, Rock Staffo, one of the owners of the cigar store, to his brother, “Matchy,” in a letter dated August 13, 1943.
“Received your letter today and was glad to hear that you are O.K. . . . Say so your having Ice Cream. Well I’m glad that somebody can get it now, especially you fellows. It’s tough to get good Ice Cream, only Sherbert . . . . You didn’t receive my first letter yet, I notice. Chauty and Rock Dinardi arranged for a weekend visit and they had a heck of a time together. I got a letter from them yesterday telling me about it. . . . I got your clippings, send some more if you can. . . “
Author’s Note: On October 10, 1943 John “Matchy” Staffo (99th Bomb Group, 348th Bomb Squadron) was killed in action over the Gulf of Corinth on a bombing mission near Athens, Greece. The letter from his oldest brother Rock arrived too late, and was returned to sender.
From my dad, Nicholas “Chick” Staffo (HQ Cannon Company, 24th Infantry Division, 21st Regiment) in a letter home dated February 21, 1945, from the Philippines.
“ . . . I’ve seen combat again and I hope this is my last campaign. I’ve had some real experiences in this affair and it wasn’t very pleasant. I prayed before, but this time I really never stopped. I’ve said my Rosary’s in fox holes and many other hiding places. I know my prayers were being answered because I was pulled out of many tight spots without a scratch. . . .I met a boy from LF while we were engaging the enemy. His name is Walt Redjinski and he lives on Furnace St. He’s only 19 so I didn’t know him. He told me that one of the Verri boys was here also but I never did see him. . .”
Author’s Note: On February 13, 1945 Fiorello Verri from Flint Avenue (11th Airborne Division, 187th Paraglider Regiment, E Company) was killed in action at Nichols Field, Manila, Philippines.
There are many other stories found in the letters written back and forth between Southside families, friends and store owners on the home front. In all of these letters from “the Gang” the boys consistently request more mail with news from home.
Staffos Cigar Store was sold to Mike Bulger in the early 1950s and for some reason the young men moved to a new location, Masle’s Cigar Store on South Ann Street. Larry Masle ran the store for the next 25 years as his place became the new home for the next generation to come of age. With the closing of Masle’s in the mid-1970s the end of an era was marked. Little Falls’ society and neighborhoods evolved reflecting a dwindling population, with more structured youth activities and other lifestyle changes. This evolution led to most of the traditional cigar stores closing down, and with this some of the mysterious back room activities and mystique of the “pool halls” came to an end.
Gary Staffo is a member of the Little Falls Historical Society.