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Making It in a Man's World

Eight Women Have Defied the Odds to Run Their Own Tobacco shops

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."

As for advice for fledgling businesswomen? "I think that if you have something that you want more than anything else in the world, you can do anything that you want to do."

Five years after Silvius-Gits launched her tobacco business in Chicago, Philadelphia native Louise Hood-Lipoff, then a 25-year-old radiology worker at a local hospital, opened Tobacco Village with her then-husband, David Hood, in suburban Philadelphia. Two years later, in 1970, she bought out Hood, whom she later divorced, and took complete control of the shop. For almost 25 years, Hood-Lipoff ran the 800-square-foot store, located in the Roosevelt Mall. In 1992, when new owners bought the mall and raised the rent nearly 50 percent, Hood-Lipoff transplanted her shop to a new mall across the street, to a space more than double the size. The landlords of her former shop sued, claiming she had broken the lease. Hood-Lipoff won the court battle. It's just one of the obstacles she has overcome during her almost 30 years in the business.

"I had a hard time proving myself in the beginning," she says. "I didn't take it personally, because when I looked at the field and I realized how few [women] there were around who owned a tobacco shop, I knew that I would just have to try harder. I made it my [mission] to learn about every single thing [in the business]. I just knew that I was going to be successful if I concentrated on it and listened to what my customers wanted."

Hood-Lipoff didn't have any retail experience, but she had the determination to make her store succeed. Intrigued by cigars and pipes, she felt that she had a flair for selling tobacco and dealing with customers, she says. She is grateful for the advice of General Cigar Co.'s Bob Williamfield, a vice president, and Mike Magill, a salesman, and Gus Gerstl, a former salesman for M&N Cigar Co. (now JC Newman & Corp.), who were her mentors when she started. "What I have learned from those three people was so invaluable that if I began to write it down, I could fill books," she says. "Back then we had 'real' salesmen, who came to the store and talked to you about product and told you what every little item was about. They weren't just 'order takers.' Now, I think that it is a little bit impersonal."

The industry today has other problems, she contends, charging that the newcomers to the business are driving up cigar prices and aren't knowledgeable about tobacco. "You know that when you walk into grocery stores and 7-11s and see [tobacco products], that these people do not belong in the cigar business," Hood-Lipoff says. "These people are coming to me and calling me up and asking, 'Can you help me do this, do you know about this, can you help me build a humidor?' Hey, I learned the hard way and I have spent a lot of money putting it together. I think that they are a detriment to the business."

Hood-Lipoff is firmly entrenched in the business. She has four employees, who all received on-the-job training. She has served as president of the Philadelphia Tobacco Retailers Association for the past six years. In 1986 she was presented with the Phillip G. Bondi award for Cigar Retailer of the Year from General Cigar. She even met her second husband, Irv Lipoff, through the business in 1979; he was one of her customers. Four years later, they married and spent their honeymoon touring the cigar factories in the Dominican Republic. Between them they have five children who have all helped at the store, but none has expressed interest in taking over the business.

Even if none of her children eventually step in, Hood-Lipoff sees a bright future ahead. "The pipe business has been doing wonderfully. I think pipes are the next trend." But cigars aren't taking a back seat. "Cigar sales are up every year," she says. "I think that people who have stuck with it are going to continue with it."

Sticking with it is what Ruth Gorman of Smoke & Snuff has done for 27 years. Her entrance into the business came as a result of a tragic loss. A homemaker, Gorman had to quickly change roles and learn about the tobacco business when her husband, Dan, died suddenly.

Born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, Gorman grew up in an age when women were more likely to sell pies at bake sales than cigars in tobacco stores. She had briefly worked at Blue Cross and Blue Shield, but because her husband didn't approve of her working, she ended up volunteering instead. Then in 1970, her life changed. Dan Gorman decided to open a tobacco store in the Twin Cities because of his love for cigars and pipes, but five months after its launch he died of an aneurysm. Grieving and left with a daughter and a son to support, Gorman's best option was to continue running the store. Her husband had planned to open two more stores in the area, but after his death the company with the lease for the additional stores reneged on its agreement with Gorman. "They would not allow me to open the other two because, they said, 'What man is going to buy from a woman in a tobacco shop?'" she recalls.

But customers did buy her pipes and cigars. According to Gorman, her shop became so successful that in 1973, her daughter, Mary Ann Fores, decided to open another Smoke & Snuff, this time in Florida. One year after opening a store in Clearwater, the Gormans opened two more stores in the state, in St. Petersburg and Bradenton. Ruth Gorman and an employee left the Minnesota store under another employee's supervision and moved to Florida to run the expanding business, now called Garrison Corp. It wasn't long before more Smoke & Snuffs opened all along the Gulf Coast of the state, from Tallahassee to Naples.

The chain now numbers 18 stores, occupying from 650 square feet on up, with the largest being the Orlando Smoke & Snuff. Gorman closed the flagship St. Paul store six years ago to devote more time to the Florida stores. "It is completely different now, especially in the past few years. [Before] every retailer was nice to each other. When my husband died, the retailers would come and bring me merchandise, and the distributors were begging for business and everybody was really sweet," she says. "The reps would come often and help us, and I remember one real old cigar man from General Cigar, he came and taught me how to display cigars."

In addition to the tobacco products, Smoke & Snuff carries collectibles, such as beer steins and lighters, "whatever the customers want." She attributes her success to always attending to customers' wants and needs, and as a result her customers have been loyal. "I think to our credit, we never neglected the pipes through the years; the tobacco was always kept in good supply so we were a complete smokeshop," she says. "Our theory is: every sale counts."

With the help of her son, Gary, an attorney, who deals with the store leasing, and his wife, Elaine, who is the main gift buyer, Gorman is counting on the business to continue doing well. Gorman hopes Gary's son, Daniel, will join the business. Through the years he has helped at all the stores, and he is an avid cigar aficionado. Because Daniel is still a student, at the University of Wisconsin, they will have to wait and see, Gorman says.

Gorman no longer works the floor in her shops, but that doesn't mean that she has lost affection for the business or her customers. "I love the business. I think it's great," she says. "The customers are fantastic. Our customers are getting younger and younger and we have about every age range. [And] cigars are still the biggest thing."

Joan Cvar of Tinderbox in Murray, Utah, is a retailer who has already endured the tough times. Cvar, whose husband is a pipe smoker and whose father and grandfather smoked pipes and cigars, has always been around tobacco and has a wide knowledge of the subject. That hasn't kept her, however, from having the occasional bizarre run-in with an obstreperous customer.

Cvar grew up in Southern California and moved to Utah during her junior year in college. She taught elementary school for two years in Hawaii until she and her husband, Fred, decided to open a tobacco shop. In 1972, the Cvars launched the Tinderbox store in Murray, Utah.

For the first two years, the couple worked long days to make their business work. Joan Cvar ran the 600-square-foot store during the day, while Fred kept his computer job at Kennecott Copper Corp. and ran the store at night. After a few tough, yet productive, years they opened a second store in nearby Salt Lake City and hired two employees. Today, Fred runs the Salt Lake City store while Joan has taken over the flagship store. A friendly rivalry has ensued.

Although most people were accepting of Joan Cvar, mostly because as the owner of the store she was deemed knowledgeable, she had to deal with the occasional sexism.

"I don't think that there is any woman in the business who hasn't felt it," she says. "Many years ago, I walked up to a woman who was in the humidor and said, 'Hello, how are you doing? How can I help you?' and she said she needed to find out about cigars and she needed to talk to a man. I said, 'Well, I can help you, I am knowledgeable about cigars' and she said, 'No, you wouldn't know what I need to know. I need to talk to a man.' Now I was in a weird mood and so I said, 'Oh, a sexist,' which was not a good thing to say. One of my employees started to walk over to help and I turned around to walk away and she kicked me."

Later, the customer went to the Salt Lake City store and complained to Fred Cvar. Nothing more ever came of it. Although Joan Cvar regrets making the comment, she feels that "sometimes you just have to be like a real person instead of a robot."

Yet most of the Cvars' customers are a pleasure, and many have developed into friends. "Some of the customers have been coming in for 25 years," she says. "I see their obituaries in the papers and I get tears in my eyes. We have grown and we have been very successful and we have been blessed and we have survived and prospered. And the most rewarding thing has been all the friends that we have made."

The industry has changed a lot through the years, she says. Twenty-five years ago, pipes were bigger than cigars and many people still smoked cigarettes. Then the antismoking lobby gained power. To survive, Cvar had to diversify her business. She incorporated beer steins and nutcrackers into the stores. This helped Cvar maintain the inventory of tobacco products. Because of the resurgence of cigars and now pipes, Cvar devotes more space today to tobacco.

What worries Cvar now more than the antismokers is the escalating price of cigars and the high tobacco taxes. In Utah, the tobacco tax is a whopping 35 percent. She firmly believes that this has hurt the business. "The prices have increased so much that people, instead of smoking 10 cigars a week, will smoke two cigars. Business is still great, but you are seeing some resistance to the price."

Cvar has high hopes for the future. Her daughter, Emily, who has worked at the stores and even at Arnold's Tobacco Shop in New York City, might be the next generation to run the shops, but Joan and Fred won't push her. Their son, Andrew, is not interested.

She has no plans on expanding the business further, believing that she has enough on her plate presently to keep her busy. "I feel to properly run a store you have to be in the store, you have to deal with the customers one on one," she says. "We need to take care of what we have and nurture those customers so they come back."

suman chaniyil capecoral , florida 33909, usa, June 16, 2012 7:26pm ET
like ur article

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