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Making It in a Man's World

Eight Women Have Defied the Odds to Run Their Own Tobacco shops
Shandana A. Durrani
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

The glass doors open to admit a middle-aged man in a business suit. Setting aside a box of cigars, the tobacco store owner greets the customer effusively and asks him how the family is doing. The customer responds with a smile, regaling the retailer with anecdotes about how his son is tearing up the local Little League. Soon, the pair are talking about the big tobacco news of the week. El Niño has wreaked havoc on the tobacco crops in Nicaragua and Honduras, the store owner says. The client wonders if his favorite cigar will be affected. Only time will tell, the retailer says, ringing up his purchases. As the customer leaves, the retailer reaches with her long tapered fingers for her double corona and takes a puff. This is the life, she thinks.

For eight women in various parts of the country, this, in fact, is the life: Diana Silvius-Gits, Louise Hood-Lipoff, Ruth Gorman, Joan Cvar, Linda Squires, Donna Brown, Brenda Roberts and Sherrin Willis are anomalies in the tobacco retailing industry. All established tobacco stores when tobacco wasn't king. They all have dealt with some form of prejudice in a retailing segment dominated by male purveyors and customers, as well as faced the rising tide of antismoking sentiments. But through it all, they all had the ambition and the belief to prevail in an industry known for its "old men's club" mentality.

The story begins with Diana Silvius-Gits of Up Down Tobacco in Chicago. Renowned throughout the industry for her boisterous spirit and tobacco knowledge, Silvius-Gits is the true trailblazer. But she had a long road to travel before she achieved success.

Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Silvius-Gits taught art at Grosse Pointe University-Liggett, a top prep school in suburban Detroit. She moved to Chicago after she married Gerald Gits, a native of the Windy City (they have since divorced). She bought the Gerald Bernard Art Gallery, which exhibited work from up-and-coming local artists. In 1963, she decided to incorporate tobacco into the gallery makeup. It wasn't long before tobacco became an obsession for Silvius-Gits.

"What I like about the business is that I just can't wait to get up every morning and participate in all the different functions and parties and visit the people and talk to customers," she says. "I think that anybody that runs a successful tobacco store lives, breathes and sleeps the business. It has become my life."

In 1965, she relocated the business to the corner of Wells and Burton in Chicago. It had a 12-year incarnation as a variety store that sold tobacco products, televisions, paper dresses and magic paraphernalia. In 1977, Silvius-Gits decided to make the business entirely tobacco-related. She hired an architect to build a multilevel store at 1550 North Wells, just down the street from the old location. The 1,650-square-foot store, with its five large walk-in humidors and 13-foot-high ceilings, has been there ever since and is a popular destination for area smokers.

But it wasn't always so. Many tobacco distributors were skeptical and didn't want to provide products for the fledgling store owner. Silvius-Gits attributes it to the fact that she was a woman trying to make it in a man's business, at a time when women held "pink collar" positions such as secretarial jobs.

"They acted like a bunch of rats," Silvius-Gits says, vehemently. But there were exceptions. "Malcolm Flasher [the former managing director of the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America], Donald Gregg [who ran Faber, Coe & Gregg Inc.] and Wally Harris [of Dunhill] were really nice to me. If it hadn't been for those guys, I don't think that I would have been able to buy product because these [other] guys would sabotage you. That was the way that they treated all women. These guys wanted you to fail, and as soon as they found out you were successful, they wanted you out."

Having run a tobacco shop for more than 30 years, Silvius-Gits has labored through the highs and lows of the business, but she never threw in the towel. In the beginning she worked 18-hour days selling box after single box of cigars, while praying that she would have enough money left over to meet mortgage payments, she says. Slowly but surely, the business began to thrive; today the store employs 28 workers and it is one of the most successful in the nation. She won't disclose how much business she does, except to say "a lot." In addition to running Up Down, Silvius-Gits serves on the board of directors for the Tobacconist Association of America (TAA) and the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America (RTDA). She also has a premium cigar brand, the Diana Silvius cigar, which is made by Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia. in the Dominican Republic, and she hopes to launch a Diana Silvius Red Label cigar with the help of Carlos Toraño and his Nicaraguan factory.

And the future? Silvius-Gits says that the cigar boom will start tapering off soon. She hopes that the price of cigars will drop. She says exorbitant prices are a result of new people streaming into every aspect of the business, from retailing to distributing to manufacturing, many of whom, she says, don't know the first thing about cigars and who are bribing factory workers with all sorts of luxuries to get them on their side. "I would say that now it is a necessity that the consumer purchase their cigars from an established tobacconist," she says. "I think that we have to educate people. There is no way that guys that have been in the business for six months can make a smokable cigar."

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Comments   1 comment(s)

suman chaniyil — capecoral , florida 33909, usa,  —  June 16, 2012 7:26pm ET

like ur article

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