Just this past weekend at a stop at Glendale’s Red Carpet Liquor during the LA Grand Crew Beer Ride I was talking about Leon Cigars. The topic came up because in addition to the bottle of beer and wine purchased, I succumbed to the urge for a stogie and entered RCL’s humidor vault emerging with a $10 La Perla that I looked forward to enjoying later. A fellow beer rider noticed my purchase and I told him this would probably do, but it was no hand-rolled Leon cigar — and easily three times the price. What’s a Leon cigar he asked, and I told him all about the place.
I first discovered Gilberto Leon’s shoebox of a cigar shop on 6th Street just west of Western Avenue back in the mid-’90s when I worked in the old building on the northeast corner of that intersection. Having never before smoked a real cigar I walked in one lunch hour and exited a few no-nonsense minutes later with his recommendations for a noob: a couple of his No. 1 cigars, and they were so enjoyable that I became a semi-regular customer for the remainder of my time working there.
Later when I moved on to a job in Pasadena and after that the L.A. Zoo, I rarely found myself back in Koreatown over the years except in passing. And though I’d make it a point to cruise by his shop on those occasions, it seemed I was greeted by a CLOSED sign enough times to wonder if the elderly gent had moved on, either to retirement or the great beyond.
It was some three more years (after moving from Sherman Oaks to Silver Lake in 2003), that I finally chanced along 6th one rainy day in 2006 and was surprised to find it open for business and Gilberto at his familiar place behind the counter. I eagerly scored a pair of his No. 1s, but any thrill I expressed at finding him still rolling along was lost either in translation or the pungent aroma that filled the place.
Photo of Gilberto Leon borrowed from this marvelous 2002 photo
essay about him found at www.latinamericanstudies.org.
It’s been years again since I’ve been back. My bike commutes along 4th Street across Western put me close and I often reminded myself to take a couple extra minutes and stop by, but I never did. Dammit.
Fast forward to this Christmas Day and one of the presents my wife got me was a pair of Leon’s finest — a Presidente and a Cubarao. Later on I asked her if it was Mr. Leon minding the place but she told me the sad news she learned upon her visit: that he’d passed away. A Google search revealed a July 18 obituary by Mary Rourke in the L.A. Times in which I learned the 87-year-old had been a longtime resident somewhere in my Silver Lake neighborhood and that he died at the hospital where I was born. He opened his shop in 1979, 8 years after leaving his native Cuba with an exit visa he paid for with five years of his life forced to work for no pay in Castro’s cane fields. He is buried in Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills and survived by brothers, sisters, children and grandchildren in Cuba, Miami and Southern California, as well as his wife Carmelina who is keeping his store open and operating.
Rest in peace Mr. Leon. And long live your unique shop, an unsung treasure of Los Angeles.