100 Years of Retailing
Shandana A. Durrani
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95
The year is 1895. Grover Cleveland is in his labor-troubled second term as president. Cuba battles Spain for autonomy. The Lumière brothers make the first movie. Katie Ruth gives birth to the legendary slugger, Babe. And Demuth's Tobacco Shop in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, celebrates its 125th birthday.
Now 225 years old, Demuth's can attest to the power of perseverance. But nine additional establishments claim rich histories that date back a century or more. These cigar stores--Iwan Ries & Co. (Chicago), David P. Ehrlich Co. (Boston), L.J. Peretti Company, Inc. (Boston), Straus Tobacconist (Cincinnati), Leavitt & Peirce (Cambridge, Massachusetts), W. Curtis Draper Tobacconist (Washington, D.C.), Fader's (Baltimore), Rich's Cigar Store Inc. (Portland, Oregon) and Rubovits Cigars (Chicago)--have withstood the test of time, surviving both natural and man-made disasters. From citywide fires to the first and second world wars, from the Great Depression to the Cuban embargo to the current public intolerance for smokers, these stores are a testament to the American Dream that hard work, long hours and faith, with a little luck sprinkled in, will pay off in the long run.
Few of the stores that existed in the early years of U.S. history have survived the ravages of time. Many closed during the tumultuous times of the Depression and Second World War. Others didn't survive the aftershocks of the Cuban embargo. Many of those that closed couldn't withstand the industry's ups and mostly downs of the past 30 years. But these 10 establishments are unique. They successfully faced the challenges that lay in their paths and are poised to take on the future.
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Demuth's Tobacco Shop, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
"Because of our age, people from all over the world know about us and visit us." -Wally Vail, 78, cigar buyer
The oldest continuously operating tobacco store in the United States is Demuth's Tobacco Shop. Six years before our forefathers signed the Declaration of Independence, Christopher Demuth opened his smoke shop. Since 1770, Demuth's has provided tobacco products as well as humidors, cutters and cigar cases for the Lancaster community. Gen. Edward Hand, one of George Washington's right-hand men, purchased snuff here. Jasper Yeates, a leading American patriot, was a regular customer. And President James Buchanan was spotted at the shop buying Demuth Golden Lion cigars, according to Carol Morgan, director of the Demuth Foundation, the not-for-profit organization that now owns the shop, factory and former homes of the Demuth family.
"The Demuths were very successful businessmen," Morgan claims. "The tobacco shop served as the hub of many social contacts by businessmen in the community. They exchanged news, kept weather reports and stopped in there for their snuff, tobacco and cigars."
The shop has passed through five generations of Demuths, all in a direct line of descent. Christopher Demuth's son, Jacob, took over and later bequeathed it to his heirs, who did the same for their own offspring, until the last male Demuth, Christopher, who owned the store from 1937 until his death in 1976, left it to his wife Dorothea. It was Dorothea who, caring for shop and the family name as much as she did, sold it to The Demuth Foundation in 1986 instead of selling to an independent buyer. She wanted the shop to last. And last it has.
Demuth's carries a wide array of handmade and machine-made cigars for its customers. The store serves customers looking to spend anywhere from 50 cents to $10 for a cigar. And with the popularity of handmade premium cigars still on the rise, the store is withstanding the efforts of the antismoking brigade.
"Cigars are not going to kill," states Wally Vail, a cigar buyer for the store. "People don't understand that you can go down into the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee--Appalachia--and see 80 or 90 year olds who are still smoking corncob pipes. And they were born with them in their mouths!"
Even with fewer places to strike a match, Demuth's future looks bright, says Vail. He believes that the popularity of cigars will continue to grow and that the store will survive. "If there are any large changes in the tobacco industry whereby the store cannot continue to break even," Vail says, "it will continue to sell tobacco products; but it basically would be a museum."
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Iwan Ries & Company, Chicago
"We still run our business the same way we did 100 years ago." -Chuck Levi, 58, owner
In 1857, Edward Hoffman dreamed of establishing a cigar store in Chicago. That year, he opened the oldest tobacco shop in the Midwest, E. Hoffman & Co., later enlisting the help of his German cousin, Iwan Ries. Now, 138 years later, Ries' grandson, Chuck Levi, owns the same tobacco shop. It has borne the name Iwan Ries & Co. since 1898, when Ries gained control of the shop after Hoffman passed away.
Levi's father, Stanley, 89, married Ries's daughter in the early 1930s, and took over after Ries died in the late 1940s. It truly became a family business when Chuck entered the operation in the late '50s. Now, his son, Kevin, 25, also works at the store. But Levi is quick to point out that, although the store has managed to survive more than 100 years of changes in the tobacco industry and technology, it is basically the same store it was at its inception.
"We have modernized our marketing and merchandising," Levi says. "But we still run our business the same way we did 100 years ago. My grandfather and father always ran the business with a couple of things in mind: Service is number one and selection of merchandise is number two."
The store prides itself on its vast selection of tobacco products and accessories, according to Levi. He claims that his store carries the largest selection of pipes in the country and about 80 different brands of cigars.
Levi clearly loves the business. The store has never been in jeopardy of closing; Levi attributes this to luck and sticking to the maxim that one must take care of the customer's wants and needs, regardless of how much money he (or she) has to spend.
And as the cigar business evolves, Levi believes that the popularity of premium, hand-rolled cigars will continue to grow. But in order to succeed, says Levi, one must stay ahead of the trends, which is difficult. "Don't get lost in the shuffle, get so wrapped up in the success of today that you can't plan for tomorrow," he warns. "We are not here to make a killing this month and two or three years from now be out of business."
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L.J. Peretti Company, Inc., Boston
"We try to be a smoker's haven." -Robert Peretti, 74, owner
Boston is known for its landmarks. But one site that is not in the history books is located on Park Square. L.J. Peretti Company, Inc., a family-run operation, has served the Boston community for more than 120 years. Famous smokers such as Edward G. Robinson, Red Auerbach, Winston Churchill and Bing Crosby have purchased goods there.
In 1870, Libero Joseph Peretti, a cigar maker, decided to open a cigar establishment in which he would not only make the smokes, but sell them as well. From its humble beginnings in a loft, Peretti's Cuban Cigar Store eventually expanded to include two more stores. But changes lay ahead.
In 1921, Libero's son, Joseph, took control of the store after the elder Peretti passed on. Joseph had always been interested in cigars but decided to expand the business to include another love of his: blending tobacco. This enabled him to broaden the shop's offerings from solely cigars to cigars and pipes.
The cigar business was booming in the 1920s, and the Perettis had a number of Cuban cigar makers in their shops. They even set up a shop in New York City to help make cigars. But when the Depression hit, business would never be the same.
Robert Peretti, the founder's grandson, became involved in the business after he returned from service in the Second World War. At this time, Peretti's only had two remaining stores. Then, in 1947, Boston ran a turnpike through the store on Boylston Street, and Joseph Peretti retired. Robert was left in charge of the last store.
One of Robert's greatest challenges was surviving the effects of the Cuban embargo. But the business endured. "I think it was a great challenge for the cigar makers both in this country and the Caribbean," Peretti says. "And the transition there [from Cuban tobacco to other sources] was very difficult. This gave a chance for the whole Caribbean area to invest in developing seeds, improving the soil and the way of growing the tobacco. The quality product they are producing now is really superior."
Peretti's offers smokers more than 100 different cigar brands. Customers can also choose from a wide assortment of humidors, cutters and cigar cases, all of which are hot sellers, according to Peretti. And now that business is booming, with no end in sight, Peretti has other mountains to climb. On June 19, Peretti's celebrated its 125th birthday at the Boston Harbor Hotel. It observed the occasion by introducing a special smoke, the Peretti's Anniversary Cigar. All of this when public intolerance for smokers is on the rise.
"Public opinion has certainly been against smoking. In that sense we have certainly felt pressure," Peretti says. "But the question is: How do you position yourself so that you still maintain the leadership that you have had over the years?" If past history is any indication, Peretti will find a way.
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David P. Ehrlich Co., Boston and Leavitt & Peirce, Cambridge
Established 1868 and 1886
"I think there is a certain allegiance to old-time stores that treat you well." -Paul Macdonald Sr., 64, owner
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