Joe’s Smoke Shop, a landmark in downtown Portland that’s been owned by the same family for nearly seven decades, has changed its name.
“We just decided we are not really a smoke shop anymore,” said David Discatio, who now owns Joe’s Super Variety with his brothers Mike and Steve. “We’re more like a pumped-up 7-Eleven.”
For years, Discatio and his brothers discussed renaming the store. But they didn’t want to upset their “old school” grandfather, Joe Discatio, a former shoeshine boy who opened the store on Congress Street in 1945. He died nearly two years ago, at the age of 97.
A more recent reason for the name change was to avoid any confusion about customers’ use of electronic benefit transfer cards in the store, said David Discatio.
Gov. Paul LePage, who has made welfare reform an issue in his re-election campaign, released data in January showing that more than 3,000 EBT cards, which carry welfare benefits, were used for transactions in smoke shops in the period from Jan. 1, 2011, to Nov. 15, 2013.
Recipients in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are prohibited from using their benefits to buy certain items, including tobacco products.
Discatio said that more than half of his store’s revenue now comes from food sales, while tobacco sales account for less than a third.
After discussing the name change for years, the brothers were spurred by LePage’s scrutiny of EBT sales to finally make their decision, Discatio said. “It kind of reminded us of how we needed to change the name,” he said.
Joe Discatio, whose parents were Italian immigrants, lived in Portland’s “Little Italy” section. After World War II, he founded his smoke shop at 665 Congress St., where it still operates today.
He shined shoes – a trade he learned as a boy – and blocked hats, as well as sold newspapers, soda and cigars. After the adjacent St. Stephen’s Church was razed, he bought that land, expanded the store and added magazines, cigarettes, groceries and a snack bar. The rest of the land became his parking lot.
His son, Joe Discatio Jr., accelerated the transition from smoke shop to convenience store in the 1960s.
The store still has one feature that a 7-Eleven lacks: a humidor, a small room with constant humidity levels for storing expensive cigars. Cedar panels in the room absorb moisture from the air during periods of high humidity, and release moisture when humidity drops.
Sarah Underwood, 33, a frequent customer who lives next door, said the new name makes sense because she relies on the store for sandwiches and for groceries like milk and eggs.
“It sounds funny to be getting food from a smoke shop,” she said.
She doesn’t have an EBT card, she said, but often sees people in the store buying goods with the cards.
Jim Jenson, 53, who has been shopping at Joe’s for more than 30 years, said the new name will be helpful to visitors who want a quick snack rather than a fine cigar. Still, he’s sticking with the old name.
“It’s still Joe’s Smoke Shop to me and a lot of the locals,” he said.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: