As the owner of Old Pasadena’s Cigars by Chivas lounge for more than 20 years, Anto Kamarian has played hostato take on a new role in life: as a minister. Applying online with the Universal Life Church, a denomination that has provided free legal ordinations to more than 20 million people worldwide seeking to perform weddings for friends and families since 1969, he now has the power to bind them together for life.
“They came in and asked, ‘Can we marry in the shop?’” says Kamarian, who has been a lifelong member of the Armenian Orthodox Church. “I was thinking it’s going to be like an Armenian wedding with approximately 200 people, and I asked them, ‘Where are you going to put all these people?’ They said they would only have 14 or 15 people in here, and the next moment another guy in the shop said, ‘Why don’t you marry them, Anto?’ I said it would be my honor.”
While unusual by most standards, the move is par for the course for the admittedly “non-traditional” couple, who met online in Minnesota six years ago and had their first date in a cigar shop. When they found a new home in Pasadena after Nathan transferred here in June 2015, the couple was thrilled to find Chivas just a block and a half away and have become near-daily fixtures there.
They plan on exchanging traditional vows and will not allow smoking during the ceremony. McLaughlin notes that their actual family members were not surprised by their choice of location, “because they know it’s perfect for us.”
“The wedding just got tossed out as a joke, but then I thought I could get dressed at home and walk here on my wedding day,” says McLaughlin. “We thought it was a solution and Anto took it upon himself and made my life so much happier. How many first-time brides say that they can get ready at home and walk over to their wedding? Because in Pasadena, parking matters.”
The couple has become near-daily fixtures at the lounge, carrying on their tradition of frequenting the Cigar Jones shop in their former hometown of Lake Minnetonka, Minn. Riedel notes that Kamarian’s friendly atmosphere and core group of longtime regulars has created a de facto “family” for the couple.
Born to Armenian parents in Beirut, Lebanon, Kamarian moved to the United States at age 16 and has built that close-knit customer reputation over the course of 20 years in his location at the corner of Green Street and Delacey Avenue in Old Pasadena.
He’s weathered plenty of changes during those two decades, including the 2009 closing of the long-time restaurant Twin Palms, from which he used to draw plenty of customers who enjoyed smoking cigars in its outdoor dining patio. He’s also had to contend with changing attitudes and laws regarding smoking, which — combined with the restaurant’s closing — caused his business to decrease by 70 percent.
“In the old days, we did it to make money, now we make a living,” says Kamarian, 59. “We are still surviving, and I owe that to the city because the City Council hasn’t given me a hard time. Amid society’s anti-smoking attitudes, it’s difficult to make people understand that this is a legal business and I feed my children with the business and I’m in there all day long.
“A cigar is not just a cigar, it is a tool of relaxation, atmosphere and pleasure,” adds Kamarian. “People come to the shop, they relax and create an atmosphere, and they walk out having an utmost delight.”
Regardless of the pleasures to be found in a cigar shop, a couple of area clergy had different reactions to the idea of a wedding being officiated outside of a traditional church-and-pastor setting. Rev. Rick Eisenlord, who heads the LGBT-focused Good Shepherd Church in Pasadena and currently conducts his Sunday sermons online from prominent Southern California locations, believes that the phenomenon of online ordination is a reflection of the changing nature of the church in modern times.
Yet he also believes that not engaging a traditional minister can have consequences for couples later in their marriage.
“It sounds like a gimmick to get a license online, but my ministry includes people contact,” says Eisenlord. “If the state of California recognizes that, I guess it’s OK, but from a theological and marriage viewpoint, I say it’s still a responsibility to follow up and counsel them, and there’s more to this than saying you’re a minister.
“I tell every couple I marry that this wedding is not the end of our relationship, it’s just the beginning,” he continues. “I follow them through their marriage as they have problems. Every marriage is going to have problems, sooner or later, and that’s where a real pastor comes in.”
On the other hand, Rev. Susan Russell of All Saints Episcopal Church believes that the trend of nontraditional weddings is a reflection of the fact that many Americans live in a “post-faith culture.” She believes that couples who choose their own terms for their wedding rather than trying to fit a tradition they don’t believe in is exhibiting more honesty than couples who set a church wedding even when they don’t actually espouse faith.
“I think the fact that couples who are not affiliated with a religious community have the option to get married in a cigar shop with someone they admire, rather than basically attending a church just long enough to qualify having their wedding in a church, has more integrity in their choice,” says Russell. “There’s more integrity in both a church wedding and a secular wedding when we give equal freedom to give couples the right to choose their own path. The more honest we can be across both cultural and religious continuum, then the more we can affirm people.”
Ultimately, Kamarian is happy just to provide another positive experience for McLaughlin and Riedel. He also feels that, due to his lounge’s reputation for being the only Southern California cigar shop to require staffers to wear suits and ties, the atmosphere is better suited for a wedding than one might think.
“It’s definitely a fun thing, and if any of our clients want me to marry them, I will be more than happy to do so,” says Kamarian. “But it is the most unusual request I’ve had in the shop.”
Cigars by Chivas is located at 58 S. DeLacey Ave., Pasadena. Call (626) 395-7475 or visit cigarsbychivas.com.