First Person Singular: Bob Materazzi, 63, owner, Shelly’s Back Room, Washington


Bob Materazzi owns the cigar bar Shelly’s Back Room. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
March 22, 2012

I had been in the hotel industry since I got out of the Marines in 1970. I was 50 when I left Marriott and wasn’t ready to retire. I did what every middle-age man wants to do: bought a bar. I knew nothing about cigars. I was a smoker for 40-something years, but never cigars. I quit about the same time I bought [Shelly’s]. That didn’t make it easy, but the thing is, you smoke cigars to enjoy them; you smoke cigarettes because you’re addicted.

I am here seven days a week. We make money, so that helps when it comes to loving it, but mostly I’m here because it’s where I feel at home. I’ve been in the business of hospitality most of my life, making people feel welcome, and I’ve got a place where I feel comfortable just sitting down with my customers and having a drink, talking politics. The corner bar is kind of dying. Now it’s these sprawling, loud sports bars or clubs. We keep it low-key. We never have fights or drunks. There are no WiFi campers nursing a cappuccino. We’re very careful about having too much sports on the TVs. It’s more CNN and Fox. That’s for the regulars — politicians, lobbyists and lawyers — but also because I need to make money. A guy can sit and nurse a beer for an hour, staring at a game, talking to no one and barely spend any money. I’ve got customers from out of town who, whenever they come in, say it feels like their neighborhood bar. That’s not because they have their own cigar locker or because the staff knows their scotch of choice — it’s because other customers recognize them as soon as they walk in the door.

Look, if you don’t like the smell of cigars, don’t come here. Beyond that, it’s not an old boys’ club. That’s the stereotype, and cigar bars have cultivated that to some extent, but not here. When he opened it, Shelly wanted to create this exclusive-feeling, almost private club. The architectural details — Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired everything, leather couches and dark wood — they’re beautiful, but he’d spend $600 on a bar stool that would be wrecked in two years. I’ve made it successful and accessible. Customers do ask why I haven’t made it mine with a name change. The joke is that Shelly’s Back Room sounds better than Bob’s Back Room, but really, he gave this place its personality. I’m giving it a future.

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