Opening a retail outlet to sell a product that many people consider harmful might seem risky in the best of times, let alone in a down economy.
But at least four tobacco-related businesses have opened recently in Wichita or are close to doing so.
Jason Webster and Neil Edwards recently opened the Humidor Cigars & Lounge at 8558 W. 21st St.
It's a spin-off from the smoke shop next door to ABC Discount Wine & Spirits, Webster said. "We kept expanding the humidor and finally we just ran out of space" and moved the cigar part of the business to a separate building. The front half is the retail area; the back half is a cigar lounge.
A Humidor also opened recently at 2221 N. Woodlawn. That one is owned by Rick Daugherty.
Mary and Maher Gerges just opened Shesha Tobacco Shop in Towne West Square.
It's in a space where another tobacco shop was a few years back and offers a variety of tobacco, including cigars and tobacco for hookah water pipes.
Space at 2821 W. 13th St. is being remodeled for Steve's Smoke Town, according to signs outside.
Webster said business at the smoke shop has been steady through the years.
But "I see fewer smoke shops than there used to be" around Wichita. "That's probably helped us maintain some of our business."
David Flax, who owns four Tee Pee's Smoke Shops in Wichita and two in Newton, has seen others leave the business and said it would be tougher to open a new store now than it was 15 years ago, when he started.
"There's so much stuff in the last 15 years that has changed," he said, mentioning attitudes about smoking, the number of products available, state regulation and the price of cigarettes.
He has seen customers switch to roll-your-own tobacco and electric cigarettes that give the user a dose of nicotine without smoke. And to stay in business, he has to stock those as well as the cigarettes that they can buy anywhere else for the same price.
"You have to have everything the customer wants," he said, and a customer who can find only two of the three things he wants will shop elsewhere.
Valeria Stanford manages Central Smoke Shop, which has been open about two years. She said the first three months or so were a struggle, "but we're doing well."
Customers complain about increasing prices but keep buying, she said.
The shop offers some convenience store products as well as tobacco, she said, but "what's keeping our doors open is the cigarettes."
Webster, of the Humidor, said he thinks people — especially younger ones — are looking for inexpensive ways to indulge themselves, and cigars and other tobacco products give them a way.
"I think it's a younger generation that's driving our business now," he said.
With more space for cigars and a lounge in which to smoke them, he said, "we'll increase our sales enough to hopefully make this thing work."