BOBCAT MAGAZINE PREVIEW
by WES FERGUSON
When he died in the spring, at age 59, the body of downtown shopkeeper Rob Robinson was transported to a laboratory in Lockhart so a medical examiner could determine his cause of death.
The physician observed Robinson’s bushy eyebrows, the bushier mustache, and his mountain man-style beard, a gray tangle of facial hair that would have been familiar to any customer of the Hill Country Humidor. Robinson had been selling tobacco and swapping stories there for more than a quarter century.
The medical examiner measured Robinson’s beard, because that’s what medical examiners do. It was 10 inches long. She sized up his hair — 28 inches — and noted the six colored bands that held his ponytail in place. She also noticed his white Kinky Friedman campaign T-shirt and the message scrawled on it in red ink.
“Rob — See you in Hell!” the note read. It was signed, “Kinky.”
Robinson would have probably appreciated the final irony of that message. He and Friedman, the cigar-chewing, one-time Texas gubernatorial candidate, had known each other since “Christ was a cowboy,” Friedman recalled in a recent phone interview. “I think we met on the gang plank of Noah’s ark.”
Robinson was a gentle man with great moral clarity, his friend said, a scholar and a “spiritual libertarian” in his outspoken political views. Others describe him as a bearded biker guy, or kindly and professorial, at ease debating the finer points of Texas history, politics and tobacco. He was an ex-con who’d learned from his mistakes and turned his life around when he moved to San Marcos in 1983.
A longtime smoker, Robinson opened the humidor in 1986, drawing customers and cronies to the only place to buy a decent cigar or pouch of pipe tobacco between Austin and San Antonio. As for the humidor itself, situated in a historic storefront on the courthouse square, the best description comes from Friedman. It was like a museum or attic, he said — the attic of San Marcos.
“And Rob had a lot of interesting things going on in his attic, too,” he recalled. “Rob was a very learned man about Texas and our history. He really was a scholar. If life had taken another turn, it’s hard to imagine Rob in academia, but he might have done very well as a professor.”
Over time, though, the shop had begun to show its age. Piles of stuff had accumulated like flotsam from Robinson’s many interests. A friend and former employee described Robinson as a “hoarder’s hoarder” who never found a flat corner of countertop or hardwood floor that he couldn’t pile over with a piece of memorabilia, Americana, or whatever else came through the door. He didn’t collect guitars and antique bicycles, so much as amass them.
In short, the humidor as he left it was a mess. Following his death on March 1, Robinson’s widow Shirley closed the store for three months while she and a team of friends sorted through the collectibles, the dozens of wooden pipes, and the most puzzling discovery, a new Sony Betamax, still in the box. They dusted, straightened, cleared a wider path for the customers, and reopened in early June.
“A few people have voiced the opinion that we’ve cleaned Rob right out of the store,” Shirley said. “A lot of people don’t want it to change.”
Even so, you can feel Robinson’s presence in every nook of the humidor. Toward the back, his name adorns heavy glass jars of fragrant cured tobacco, some that he blended before he died. And though his passing at the age of 59 is not a great advertisement for smoking — the official cause of death was complications of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, for which tobacco use is thought to be a factor — the decor, the creaky wood floors and aroma of pipe tobacco filled this nonsmoker with an urge to light up.
On the other end of the shop, wisps of smoke curled from lighted pipes and cigars where a few of Robinson’s old cronies were sitting, smoking and trading stories on an August afternoon.
“This was my hangout for years,” said Marion Johnson, a semi-retired conservationist who was puffing a “barber pole” cigar. “A lot of retired and old underemployed guys would smoke cigars and shoot the bull. Rob always led the conversation. He had more bull than anybody.”
Sitting in the leather chair next to Johnson, Bob Nelson cradled his pipe as he drew on a blend of tobacco called Texas Ranger. His one-word description of the post-Robinson humidor?
“Clean,” he deadpanned.
“When we first started coming back in, it was very emotional because we had all gotten so close to Rob,” Nelson added. “He was everybody’s best friend. There’s not a part of this place that he didn’t have his hand on. We still talk about him every day.”
There is plenty to talk about. Robinson’s life was one of those great second-chance San Marcos stories. Born in San Antonio in 1952, Steven Lawrence “Rob” Robinson grew up a military kid who lived at Air Force bases in Germany, Colorado and North Carolina before returning to San Antonio, where he graduated from high school. He rode a BMW motorcycle, played guitar, and did a little hard time in the early ’80s for a cocaine possession rap, before moving to San Marcos to be near Shirley, who was attending Southwest Texas State University.
The humidor bounced around downtown San Marcos in its early years, with locations in the back of a pool hall and an old bakery where people played dominoes in the afternoons. Two decades ago he moved to the present spot, which quickly became one of the great social settings in town, said Tony Wilson, a former employee.
“Come in at three o’clock in the afternoon, and there would be three or four conversations going, and Rob was the focal point of it all,” Wilson said. “He was a magnet who drew people. He could talk to people and make them feel welcome, and if you came in more than twice a year, you were a regular to him. … I think it would have been a tragedy not to stay open,” Wilson continued. “Obviously it’s not the same because Rob was the heart and soul of the humidor. Rob was great with people but not with housekeeping. It had to change. You can at least see things now. There was a time when you couldn’t see a surface.”
Amid the longterm cleanup, Shirley Robinson said business has been busier than usual this summer. She’s planning to reintroduce dominos soon and expects to host a grand reopening for the store in the fall.
“We want to continue the tradition of having the old-time tobacco shop where you’re welcome to come in and visit a while and get to know people,” she said. “So many people missed Rob, and I think they’re so happy to have that kind of shop open again. They have really embraced it and really supported us re-opening. We’ve got people coming from all over, old friends calling up and coming from far-away places too.”
One of Shirley’s advisers, Mikey Orloff, calls the store the “last bastion of sanity in San Marcos.”
“We’re trying to shoulder some of his legacy, his mission,” Orloff said, “but I’m not filling Rob’s shoes, and we don’t know anyone around here who could.”
A version of this story first appeared in Bobcat Magazine. Like Bobcat Magazine on Facebook, and see many more features in the digital version below.[issuu width=638 height=400 embedBackground=%23000000 backgroundColor=%23222222 documentId=120828012506-84ad1a90653d4d71850ac67a49c382e3 name=fall2012 username=bobcat-magazine unit=px v=2]
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