Shooting Straight

A concrete wall separates the four-story Arquitectonica building from a squat white workshop. On the east side of the wall, young architects in glass offices create new designs for international clients. On the west side, 70-year-old Abe Rich works alone in his half of the bunkerlike structure, 800 square feet of heat, dust, and stacked wood. For 34 years -- 23 of them at this alley location on the south side of Fifth Street on South Beach -- Abe Rich has been handmaking some of the finest pool cues in the world. He starts his work day canvassing the arms-width corridor between his workshop and the wall (which Arquitectonica put up a few years ago), cleaning up food wrappers, beer cans, broken bottles, condoms, human feces. "That's the way it goes -- what are you going to do?" Abe muses in one of his favorite refrains, his gray eyebrows arching in sync with his matching mustache. Before leaving work, Abe places a couple of jugs of water along the wall for the night stalkers' avail. It's times like these that he recalls his father's hopes for him: to become an engineer or architect -- a professional man, not a lowly woodturner like his forefathers. Abe, however, does what he says he was born to do: stand for long stretches and shape wood while it rotates on a lathe.

Inside the workshop, wood is a blur as he chisels, then strokes and turns it with his right hand. Abe is a taut five-foot-three, with a hunched back (a legacy of slave labor at Dachau) and arms like a college wrestler. He thrives on making the perfect cue, over and over again. He has neither wife nor children nor hobbies. He doesn't need money, and his health, particularly an arrhythmic heart, could use a rest. But Abe needs the work and the routine. Get up at five, work by seven, close shop at four. Every day except Sunday. It's been Abe's way since he opened Star Cue Manufacturing in 1973. "If I'm not working, there's emptiness," he says, crinkling his eyes, his soft voice coated with a thick Hebraic accent. "I'm afraid if I stop, it will be the end of me." He aspires to work as long as his uncle Isidore, who made custom pool cues and ivory cue balls in New York City till the age of 83.

Champions, big-shot celebrities, hustlers, and rank amateurs alike have bought Abe's cues. And when the industry has come calling for Abe's wisdom, dangling fame and riches, he has coolly declined. His workshop remains an orthodox enclave amidst the sexy swirl of big-time pool and billiards. He's an old-fashioned craftsman with old-fashioned values, as straight and true and everlasting as his cues, a soul stoically at odds with the buoyant, fast-money, image-conscious culture of South Beach.

"I'm the last of the Mohicans," he says without a hint of humor. "I take a piece of square wood and I make a cue from scratch. It gives me a living. A decent, honest living. I'm not exploiting anybody, and nobody helps me. I'm a working man, on my own."

Two guys from the Keys drop in at Abe's shop. Capt. Jeff Balch, a jaunty, broad-shouldered marine salvager with a mirthful voice -- "Riiiich!" -- greets Abe with a peck on the cheek and a bag of Dunkin' Donuts. Balch and his pool partner, a commercial fisherman, have come to stock up.

"This guy is unequalled. He's appreciated by the people who know what craftsmanship is," says Balch, who pivots excitedly, walks to his truck, and returns with a two-piece cue. "See this stick?" he asks while screwing the pieces together. "I bought it from him in 1976, and it's as good as new. And I break with my cue -- nobody breaks with their cue! That's a sin. But I've never busted a joint with this cue."

The men squeeze sideways to the back of the workshop, stuffed with wood and cues in varying stages of completion. Abe opens plywood doors to reveal a floor-to-ceiling closet. Pool cues are wrapped securely in heavy plastic and stacked on shelves according to wood type. He steps on a ladder and pulls out a goncalo, an expensive cue made of very heavy dark wood from Brazil. The men take turns examining the exquisite specimen, raising it like a shotgun to eye its straightness, simulating the stroke of a pool-table shot.

"Perrrfect," Balch croons.
"Of course. They're all perfect," Abe says matter-of-factly. "I will not let go -- how can I sell a cue if it's not perfect?"

The men buy five cues and four cases. Total price: $898.22
"I don't want to be left without one of his cues. I mean, how much longer does he have?" whispers Balch, who then leaves Abe with an order for a cocobolo cue. It's hard to get good-quality cocobolo wood (which comes from the west coast of Central America) these days, Abe says, and he won't buy just any cocobolo. Furthermore, he no longer accepts deposits on cue orders and never promises a completion date because it's too much pressure and too much guilt if he misses a deadline. Custom orders arrive from around the nation and abroad, from tournament pool players and sophisticated amateurs. They always want the cue made pronto, not manana; and Abe always has to break it to them: Manana, friend, and on no special day.

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Ray Martinez