Mac's Smoke Shop, established in 1934 by Glen and Ruth McManus, has lived through almost every imaginable crisis over the past 86 years, from a world war to several economic recessions to a pandemic. And now, it's facing another that could ultimately bring its demise: a city ban on flavored tobacco products.
In a 4-3 vote on Tuesday, the Palo Alto City Council outlawed the sale of electronic cigarettes and flavored tobacco products.
"It's devastating," said Neil Khoury, who owns the shop with Lori Khoury. "We keep going over it over and over in our heads and how we're going to survive ... my emotions are all over the place. We cried. Our employees cried."
Following in Santa Clara County's footsteps with the same type of sweeping ban that's expected to go into effect next month for unincorporated areas, Palo Alto businesses will no longer be able to sell flavored pipe and chewing tobacco or any form of e-cigarettes. Based on data from the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration, there are 23 stores, including gas stations, that have an active license to sell cigarettes and tobacco in Palo Alto.
The Khourys had asked the city to be grandfathered an exemption to sell flavored tobacco, which Mac's has been retailing since 1934. One of the shop's own brands actually has a hint of vanilla flavor in it, Khoury said.
Khoury said sales from flavored tobacco, not including any vape-related products, represent around 50% of the store sales. With the ban, Khoury said he'll be losing anywhere from 60-70% of his sales.
A cursory glance inside the store gives insight into how much the ban would immediately gut the business.
Entire shelves and cases of cigarettes, cigars, vapes and other tobacco and nicotine products would disappear leaving one side of the shop with nothing but glass bongs, cannabidiol (or CBD) products — the active ingredient in cannabis — and lighters.
The shop also sells newspapers and magazines, but those only make up 3% of his gross profits.
The rest of the store's items include a wide assortment of drinks (no liquor), coffee, packaged pastries, candy and other miscellaneous items, like batteries, chapstick, mini-hygiene products, condoms and unique items such as branded Mac's T-shirts and retro alarm clocks.
So for a product that's literally rooted in the store's name, Mac's Smoke Shop, Khoury said it's hard to see what other business model he can turn to, besides selling tobacco, that would make up for the lost revenue.
"I've been crunching the numbers and I don't feel too optimistic," he said.
For many former and longtime Palo Alto residents, losing Mac's Smoke Shop represents losing a piece of history. The store is a reminder of an increasingly vanishing era of Palo Alto — a time when its streets were lined with independently-owned mom-and-pop shops and commuter traffic didn't weave through residential neighborhoods.
"Mac's is a cornerstone of the community — of old Palo Alto," said Karl Kusnierczyk, 62, a former Palo Alto resident who now lives in Cocoa Beach, Florida. "Of course, we went to Mac's, everybody did."
For Kusnierczyk, Mac's wasn't just his go-to store for his favorite motorcycle magazines and underground comics. It was also one of many bridges of small businesses that linked a community together during a time when corporations such as Hewlett-Packard felt more accessible to the residents.
"Mac's was a kind of place where you'd hang out and meet the guy from the bicycle shop or the lawn mower repair shop and get a conversation going," he said. "Back then, it wasn't big conglomerations, it was a network of small shops and small restaurants. I remember when you could walk over to Hewlett-Packard and say, 'Hey, show me around.'"
Beyond tobacco, part of Mac's allure is its focus on preserving a small piece of the past.
Pictures of previous owners, old newspaper clippings from San Francisco Chronicle to the Palo Alto Weekly, and snapshots of athletes and artists such as Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, all smoking cigarettes, border the walls of Mac's Smoke Shop,
"The shop has its own culture, it's own community," Mattu said. "Everything is a piece of history."
But as Mac's history is laid out in plain sight, Khoury is unsure of what the future of Mac's will look like.
"We have about two months of (cash) reserve," Khoury said. "After that, I'm sorry to say we might have a fire sale and we might not be in Palo Alto."