Thirty-four years ago, Alfio Nucifora was at a crossroads.
Out of work, married with one child and another on the way, Nucifora wondered, "What am I going to do?"
The native of Sicily grew up in the family tailoring business. He came to the United States in 1967 at age 24 to visit his two sisters and ended up staying.
He worked for the prestigious G. Fox & Co. Department Store in Hartford, Conn., and moved here in 1975 for the weather, he said.
But he couldn't find work.
Area department stores were hiring women tailors, he said, who were going to work at lower salaries.
What to do? The answer to his question came one afternoon.
"I was smoking a pipe," he said, "and I thought, 'When people are happy, they smoke. When they're nervous, they smoke.' I'm going to open a business for smokers."
He opened Smokers Paradise in 1976 at Sunshine Mall in Clearwater. Pipe smoking was in style then and the shop became popular with local smokers.
In addition to cigarettes, cigars, tobacco and accessories, the store featured top-of-the-line pipes: the hand-carved dark Briarwood and the white Meerschaum carved from the fossilized shells of sea creatures. A lifelong smoker, Nucifora blended the shop's pipe tobacco using his own formulas.
Twenty years later, when the mall was closing, Nucifora moved the business across the street to Clearwater Plaza.
As the pipe fad faded, cigars took over. Among his cigar stock are the Arturo Fuente OpusX cigars, one of the highest-rated brands.
Since July, when the cigarette tax went sky high, Nucifora said, smokers have been buying loose tobacco and making their own cigarettes.
A carton of the better brand cigarettes now costs $54.95, he said.
"If you buy half a pound of tobacco for $28, you can make two cartons of cigarettes," he said. "It's a good deal and it's a better tobacco — pure tobacco with no additives."
Maggie Pack of Clearwater recently came to the shop to learn how to make her own cigarettes.
She has been a smoker for 20 years, she said, and "I like all-natural cigarettes."
Nucifora showed her how to stuff the tobacco in a small, $9.95 hand-operated machine, place the cigarette form on the end and slide a handle that shoves the tobacco into the cigarette. Then she tried it herself.
Before leaving, Pack bought tobacco, cigarette forms, a cigarette maker and a fancy case that can hold a dozen cigarettes.
Although Nucifora, 66, said he has thought about retiring, he's not ready yet.
"I love my store," he said, smiling. "I meet so many wonderful people."