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Tuesday, October 16

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Detour

When a new business opens on Milwaukee Avenue between North and Division, most jaded Wicker Park hipsters respond with an indifferent shrug. The vacant space that once housed Soul Kitchen becomes Francesca's Forno. An American Apparel appears out of nowhere with an Urban Outfitters quick on its heels. It's an endlessly shifting landscape that's always oddly familiar in its would-be quirky trendiness, but after a certain point the permutations blend together and it all becomes a blur of restaurants, bars and boutiques. Maybe that's why nobody batted an eye when Marshall McGearty's Tobacco Lounge opened. Not in that sense that it went unnoticed — there was a gala opening in January, and the place is raking in dough in light of the recent Chicago smoking ban — but more in the sense that not too many people seem to be aware that it's owned and operated by tobacco giant RJ Reynolds.

The lounge bills itself as "Earth's Most Comfortable Place To Smoke." In a post-smoking ban Chicago it sort of wins (at least regionally) by default, but that's not to say it's not cozy — as one of the last places in Chicago you can go smoke a cigarette and have a cup of coffee, you could do a lot worse. Between the fireplace, the leather couches and the faux-Herman Miller chairs, the decor feels equal parts log cabin and trendy nightclub, like some sort of boho hunting lodge. A bookcase near the front is filled with books on the history of Wicker Park shelved between Irwin Shaw and Henry James. Dean Koontz and an official "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" companion are thrown in for good measure. There are dice and cards available for free, and the self-serve bottomless coffee is under two bucks. Aside from tobacco, the lounge serves up a little bit of everything: Coffee, espresso drinks, beer, booze and pastries from Sweet Thang, a local bakery, are all available behind the counter. It's a cafe, bar and boutique all rolled into one, peppered with a hodgepodge of slick modern furniture and vintage ashtrays, ready to fulfill your desire for almost all of the (legal) vices. Rich chocolate and robust liquor are readily available, and yes, they take plastic with no minimum, but it's hard to shake the feeling that there's something a little too perfect about it, something cold and calculated behind its glowing hearth, leather couches and wood paneling. It's a cozy enough place to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes, but like the meticulously mussed hair of a pop punk band's singer, Marshall McGearty's tables and chairs are a little too perfectly mismatched.

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The explanation comes in the form of a press release from Gyro Worldwide, a Philadelphia-based advertising agency that developed the lounge's concept hand-in-hand with RJ Reynolds. Steven Grasse, Gyro's CEO, describes the Marshall McGearty aesthetic as an "eclectic Oscar Wilde meets rock star meets mod vibe." They wanted something "refined, yet not stodgy." Although the actual interior design was done by The Otto Design Group (also out of Philadelphia), Gyro was involved in "everything from initial store design renderings, packaging and signage to web design, educational materials and employee uniforms." Even the lounge's name itself stems from the partnership between RJ Reynolds blend specialist Larry Marshall and Gyro's Creative Director Larry McGearty. If anyone is responsible for the lounge's seemingly desperate desire to appear equal parts hip and welcoming, it's Gyro. And by extension, if anyone is responsible for the fact that the RJ Reynolds brand name is almost completely absent from the lounge, that would be Gyro, too.

Not that it's a dirty secret or anything. The New York Times ran a story about the partnership, and the info is no more than a Google search away on both Gyro's and McGearty's websites, but they seem to have gone out of their way to keep the RJ Reynolds name confined to the fine print within the lounge itself. The only place you can find the words "RJ Reynolds" at Marshall McGearty's is in tiny print on the promotional materials scattered throughout the lounge — pamphlets printed on glossy cardstock with titles like "The World of Tobacco" and "The Art of Tasting Fine Cigarettes." The former explains the differences between various types of tobaccos, then closes by reminding readers that "book learning is no substitute for experience!" It is on these booklets that you'll find "RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co" printed on the upper right hand corner of the back page, but you won't find it anywhere else in the lounge.

"You don't really see anything on the surface that lets you know about that connection," says Chris, a Humboldt Park resident and regular customer at McGearty's. "They're kind of trying to downplay it... I only know about it from hanging out there a lot."

According to an article clipped on the PR page of Gyro's website (they call it the "Hype" section), Marshall McGearty's is a subsidiary of RJ Reynolds. If that were the case, it would technically be a separate entity from RJ Reynolds, which could explain it. Strangely, no such subsidiary is listed for RJ Reynolds on Lexis Nexis, a website that tracks, among other things, changes in corporate hierarchies. On top of that, the receptionist at RJ Reynolds corporate headquarters said she didn't show a listing in her directory for any subsidiary called Marshall McGearty, although she was able to give me the numbers for other Reynolds subsidiaries like Santa Fe Natural Tobacco (the company that makes American Spirits). A search with Secretary of State Jesse White's office turns up Lynn J. Beasley as the president of Marshall McGearty Tobacco Artisans. He is also the president and chief operating officer of RJ Reynolds.

I guess Gyro Worldwide decided that the RJ Reynolds brand name doesn't buzz with the "eclectic Oscar Wilde meets rock star meets mod" crowd.

Gyro considers itself on the vanguard of the advertising industry. In addition to traditional print and television advertising, the company prides itself on its guerrilla & viral campaigns as well — the same kind of campaign that stirred up a neighborhood melee last year when a similar agency, Critical Massive, was commissioned to do a series of graffiti-style murals for Axe Deodorant on the same stretch of Milwaukee Avenue. Gyro describes themselves on their website as "hipsters with strategic brains" who "understand hard-to-reach trend-influencers," and they claim to be able to "navigate your brand through The Lifecycle of Hipness... preventing it from getting 'played out.'"

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They've worked with RJ Reynolds in the past on campaigns for Camel and Kool, but with Marshall McGearty they were asked, according to their website, "to literally reinvent the cigarette experience." Whether they achieve that goal or not is hard to say, but rest assured that the result was carefully considered and test marketed, a precise approximation of what the 21-35 year old demographic is perceived to want.

But for all their careful planning and overwrought copy, McGearty's boils down to an incredibly simple marketing ploy: The lounge, at its essence, was created to sell tobacco to smokers with fewer and fewer places they can go. The tobacco is kept behind the counter in large glass jars, and the tobacconists are more than happy to suggest one of their nine signature blends based on your usual brand. Four of them offer "flavor infusions," like the Oriental Rose, which offers floral notes and hint of vanilla. The Earl features "an undercurrent of tea flavor," while the Karmelita has hints of "cocoa, cinnamon, and pine with an underlying deep caramel sweetness." When you make your selection, you're offered the choice of either pre-packed or hand-rolled. I chose a hand-rolled pack of The Earl, paid my eight dollars, and carefully followed the printed guide on how to smoke them. "The educated hedonist receives more pleasure," it said. I cleansed my palate with coffee, lit up, and paid close attention. "How does the smoke travel? Does it diminish around your throat, or stop somewhere in between?"

"When I read their descriptions of the taste and the smoke and blah blah blah, I don't know. I don't really pay attention to that," says Karen, a McGearty's patron at the lounge for her third time. "I'm not a connoisseur, but I don't like every cigarette. I go out of my way to buy fancy ones," she says. "I'd have to get to know these a little better, but I love the box. I'm a sucker for packaging."

Karen didn't know the lounge was owned by RJ Reynolds, but she didn't seem to mind much. "It makes sense, actually. If I were RJ Reynolds and smoking bans were going up all over the place, I'd try to find a loophole so I could open a place where people could smoke. Business sense, you know?"

Armed with this newfound knowledge, Karen still sees the lounge as a good thing. "I feel thankful," she says. "If this place didn't exist, I'd be outside shivering. So thanks, RJ Reynolds. Thanks for providing a comfortable place for me to smoke."

Chris sees things the same way. "I make a choice to smoke, and if that's what I want to do, I'm glad there's a place I can go that caters to it," he says. "I think this is the way it should be. Most of the world is going to be non-smoking, but there should still be places for smokers."

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Of the people I talked to, about half of them knew the lounge was owned by RJ Reynolds, but whether they knew it or not, almost none of them cared. Josh, a regular customer at the lounge, pulled himself away from a game of Scrabble to vent. "I couldn't care less [about the RJ Reynolds ownership]. I'm ultra-pissed that the smoking ban went through, and I'm grateful to have anywhere I can go hang out and smoke," he says. Most people aren't coming to Marshall McGearty's for a unique tobacco experience; they're coming because they can't drink coffee and smoke cigarettes indoors anywhere else.

There isn't anything particularly diabolical about what RJ Reynolds is doing. In an endless quest to gain market share of a product that essentially sells itself, Marshall McGearty's represents a tiny percentage, little more than a footnote in the epic saga that is Big Tobacco, but in an industry where individual percentages equate to hundreds of millions of dollars, even the footnotes are noteworthy — particularly when those footnotes involve tricking a group of people into thinking they're supporting an independent business. But the patrons aren't going to raise a stink about it—they don't have anywhere else to go.

Wicker Park, for all its used books, vintage resale and coffee shops, is big business. And even though Marshall McGearty's promotes itself as a place to "Rediscover the Lost Art of Indulgence," its welcoming hipster facade serves only to reinforce a single fact: no matter where you are, even on a strip that purports itself to be some kind of anti-corporate haven for local businesses, you are being marketed to.

Count the ATMs at North & Milwaukee & Damen if you don't believe it.

 

About the Author(s)

Ross Wolinsky blogs at Hypocritical Mass and self-publishes a zine of the same name. His ironic t-shirt collection has spiraled completely out of control.

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