Smoke break: James Fox cigar boss retires after 46 years
David McGrane recalls his colourful career at the Grafton Street institution
David McGrane in James Fox cigar store on Grafton Street in Dublin.
When David McGrane retires today as managing director of James Fox cigars on Grafton Street, it will bring a close to the “summer job” which he applied for after completing his Leaving Cert at St Aidan’s CBS on Collins Avenue 46 years ago. The interview was McGrane’s first time inside the door of the cigar merchants – in 1970s Ireland you would have to have a certain opinion of yourself to come into the shop.
“Many Fox customers would dress for the occasion of coming into Grafton Street to do their shopping, it was part of the ritual. We didn’t open until 1pm on a Saturday, so we would have people coming in on their way to the races, people on their way to shoot something – usually animals, not humans for the most part,” McGrane says.
Once he had secured the job, the brief given to the young McGrane was to “make interesting conversation with the gentlemen smoking by the fireplace”, an innate skill which no doubt helped secure him the job. McGrane describes the clientele in the shop in those days as an eclectic and rarefied bunch.
“In that time the regulars around the fire included racehorse trainers, baronesses, lords, ladies, a wing commander and at one stage we had at least two witches.
“One Middle-Eastern gentleman lived in a hotel in Ballsbridge, I remember he smoked El Rey del Mundo No 47 cigars. He gave me three pieces of advice – that appearances are more important than reality in this life; that if you want to know what is happening in a country, only believe what you read in the press printed outside that country, and always to keep your assets fluid.”
The gentleman disappeared one day, never to be seen again, but his bill was settled in advance – in cash, of course. Coming in to work in those days was “like a visit to the Abbey”, McGrane says, and the entertainment provided by both customers and fellow staff members is what convinced him not to try work elsewhere. A few in particular stand out in his memory.
“Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards were great fun, it was like a production every time they came in; Lord Dunsany would just stop the car and come in for his snuff – there was no parking, he’d just stop the car in the middle of the street and come in and get his four tins of Top Mill Snuff, then get back into the car and drive off.”
Once he had proven his abilities at making interesting conversation with the gentlemen by the fire, McGrane’s training moved on to learning how to blend pipe tobacco by hand (which he says is “just like baking a cake really”) and the art of window dressing.
As time has gone on the business has evolved and the growth of online retailing has opened up the store to customers across the world, as well as raising McGrane’s profile internationally – his tutorials on aspects of pipe-smoking have generated hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube.
McGrane’s time in Foxes has also coincided with many major events in the life of Dublin city, including the Dublin and Monagan bombings and the visit of US president Bill Clinton. McGrane has many stories from that presidential visit.
“On one occasion when president Clinton was here, a large, well-built man came into the shop and put down a bag on the floor and I could hear the clunk of metal. I slid up and had a discreet look into the bag and it was full of guns. The only thing I could say to him was, ‘Are you supposed to have those?’ ‘It’s ok sir, I’m with the secret service.’ I took him at his word and we had a lovely conversation.”
Even as he heads into retirement, McGrane says he will continue to enjoy premium Cuban cigars and the company of other cigar smokers, things that he maintains are good for one’s mental health.
“Cuban hand-rolled cigars are something to be enjoyed, to be savoured. It’s important to be able to sit down and take a little time to think to yourself every now and then. I firmly believe that sitting down with a really good cigar and a glass of good whiskey has a very therapeutic effect – I know that some doctors would not agree with me on that, but Sigmund Freud would,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
McGrane says that he doesn’t have any major plans for retirement other than having more time to read, to travel with his beloved wife Joan and to visit one of his sons, who lives with his partner in Spain. Leaving Fox will be a massive change for McGrane, but also for Fox – he has been there for more than a quarter of its 136-year history.
“I’ve been in Fox longer than I have been anywhere, so it is going to be hard – I’ve been coming in and out of that front door for 46 years, so it is going to take time to adjust. I notice that there’s a lot of paint brushes and hammers appearing at home, so I have a feeling I will be busy on that front for a while,” he says with a laugh.
Retirement is unlikely to change him too much. He recounts a hilarious tale, which due to his enduring discretion he insists cannot be printed, about a soiree in a French ambassador’s residence on the continent on Bastille Day. McGrane was enjoying champagne while mingling with ambassadors and aristocrats and then two days later “I was on the 27B bus on my way into work in the rain.
“If experiences like that haven’t changed me, I don’t think much will.”