100 Years of Retailing
Shandana A. Durrani
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95
(continued from page 1)
The Boston area has two additional historic cigar establishments: David P. Ehrlich Co., the third oldest in the nation, and Leavitt & Peirce, a shop overflowing with Harvard memorabilia. Both stores are currently under the management of the Macdonald family, but each has its own rich past.
Ehrlich's is one of the few old cigar stores that was founded by a woman. Fanny Abrahams, a German immigrant and mother of two, left her homeland for Boston to start a tobacco shop with her husband. But fate dealt her a cruel blow when her husband died before leaving Germany to join her in the States. Alone and bereft, the widow nonetheless fulfilled her dream and opened the F. Abrahams tobacco store in 1868 at 1133 Washington Street.
Fate also played a role in the arrival of the Ehrlichs. In 1872, the great fire of Boston destroyed many blocks of the city. David Ehrlich and his father owned a jewelry shop that burned down during this fire, according to owner Paul Macdonald Sr. The younger Ehrlich found work at the Abrahams tobacco shop. Later, he married into the family, and from approximately 1900 on, the shop was known as David P. Ehrlich Co.
Ehrlich had no children himself, and after he passed away in 1946 he left the store to eight of his cousins who were in the glove business. The Macdonalds bought the store in 1978 after the descendants of the Ehrlich family, for lack of interest, decided to sell.
"In 1914, they [the Ehrlich cousins] owned a company called Touraine Gloves," says Macdonald. "They had two young boys working for them, and the story goes they [the boys] always talked about going west and making their fortune. The two young guys turned out to be Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer."
The shop has been a major provider of pipes for the Boston community, even going so far as installing a pipe maker on premises. But due to the popularity of cigars, it is now predominantly a cigar store, according to Macdonald. In fact, the store carries 30 premium cigar brands as well as the usual array of cutters, humidors and cases.
Macdonald's other shop in neighboring Cambridge, Leavitt & Peirce, is run by his son Paul Jr., 39. Founded on Harvard Square in 1886 by Sam Leavitt and a Mr. Peirce, it has often been referred to as the "other college in the square," according to Macdonald. Many famous politicians have crossed its threshold, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Despite its devoted clientele, the store declined in the 1950s until a group of Harvard graduates campaigned to save the landmark. They approached fellow Harvard alumni William and Richard Ehrlich and asked them to purchase the store. In 1956, it became a part of the Ehrlich holdings. Macdonald started managing the store in 1973.
Besides cigars, the store displays a lot of Harvard memorabilia. "If you went into the store, it is like going back in history," says Macdonald. "It is more like a museum for Harvard. It is a wonderful store."
Macdonald emphatically believes in the cigar business, and he maintains that it is a fiercely competitive, yet equally friendly, business. "Because of the success, the industry has become much more friendly with each other. We are willing to share and talk about what's good in the industry."
Because Macdonald believes that the popularity of cigars will level in the next decade, he is diversifying his stores. Both stores have branched out to include more than tobacco products. David Ehrlich's offers wine as well as tobacco products, and Leavitt & Peirce provides customers with a selection of men's toiletries, leather goods and Harvard-associated products.
"Whatever the customer wants, as long as it is not illegal or immoral, you are going to get it," says Macdonald. "They don't really need you--you need them."
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Straus Tobacconist, Cincinnati, Ohio
"The new cigar phenomenon has made the good stores much better and it has made the bad stores much worse." -James Clark, 39, owner
Half a nation away, in the heart of downtown Cincinnati, lies another historic tobacco landmark. Straus Tobacconist has a unique and hazy history that dates back about 115 years.
According to James Clark, the present owner of Straus Tobacconist, two brothers with the surname of Straus in 1880 opened a tobacco and convenience store in Cincinnati. Nearby was another mostly wholesale cigar shop bearing the name of Straus, which was owned by Henry Straus, who was no relation to the brothers.
The history of this store and wholesale operation is not very clear because proper records have not been kept over the years. In fact, 40 years worth seems to be lost, Clark says. The records between Henry Straus' death in the '30s and the Straus merger in 1973 are missing. This was a period that saw a number of ownership changes, Clark adds.
What is clear is that the two stores merged into one in the early 1970s. A wholesale/retail conglomerate called the Straus-Keilson Company (again, no relation) bought the smoke shops and operated them under one umbrella. Then in 1983, Core-Mark Distributors from Vancouver, British Columbia, bought the wholesale division (of the Straus merger) while STK Industries bought the retail side; Clark acquired the shops in 1991, just when the fledgling cigar market was making a comeback.
"In 1991, I noticed that we were getting a lot of requests from fellas for different cigars," he says. "We finished our new wall display pretty much at the same time as the initial Cigar Aficionado hit the stands. The timing was absolutely perfect."
Now, Clark has a challenging time keeping up with the demand for premium, hand-rolled cigars. With more than 100 premium brands to choose from, Straus Tobacconist's many new and old customers purchase anything they can get their hands on.
"Because of our location in the central business district of downtown Cincinnati, we have always had a clientele that had disposable income," Clark explains. "[Now] they are buying vintage quality, and they are not starting at the bottom....A couple of years ago, if you had told me that we would be selling $8 cigars as frequently as we do, I would have probably told you that you were crazy."
Clark doesn't see the demand for cigars declining soon. "I think we really need to offer these guys a good value for their money," Clark says. "As long as they continue to feel as though they are not being taken advantage of or lied to, you have a long-term customer."
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W. Curtis Draper Tobacconist, Washington, D.C.
"Our business is not for the tired or the retired." -William E. Martin, former owner
Washington, D.C., is well known for its political brouhahas and national treasures. A notable landmark missing from the tourist guides is W. Curtis Draper Tobacconist, a tobacco shop more than a century old, which has seen its fair share of capital intrigue.
The shop was founded in 1887, a couple of blocks away from its current site at 14th and G Streets, by W. Curtis Draper, who had worked in the tobacco business. Draper remained with the shop until 1946, when he sold the store. Draper's sons were not interested in the business, so he sold it to William E. Martin, an accountant by profession, but a man who had helped around the tobacco shop since he was a teenager.
The current co-owner, John "Duke" Cox, worked under Martin during the 1970s and '80s. When Martin passed away in 1990, he left the shop to his wife, Frances, and Cox, who are currently partners.
Cox states that, although Draper founded the business and maintained a loyal clientele, it was Martin who really broadened the business and made it more lucrative. "Mr. Draper always maintained a full-line tobacco shop," Cox says. "He had cigars as well as pipe tobacco and pipes. However, Mr. Martin really expanded the cigar business when he took over. Mr. Draper had a nice community business. Mr. Martin really blew it out with the mail order. [He] made it well known, not only nationally but internationally."
The shop is extremely prosperous, selling humidors, cutters, cases and many cigar brands. According to Cox, W. Curtis Draper was one of two establishments that helped introduce Macanudo in 1970 to cigar lovers in the States, at a time when other countries were finally beginning to fill the void left by the loss of Cuban cigars.
The store has outlasted the terms of 20 U.S. presidents, Republican and Democrat alike. And both Republicans and Democrats have been shoppers. Who else can claim customers such as Calvin Coolidge, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford?
"We know that the current president smokes cigars, even though they keep it low-key," says Cox. "There have been cigars bought for him here, but by whom I don't know. That's what happens now. They can't move around as well as they used to."
Regardless of laws passed by federal and state politicians to curb smoking, business is booming at W. Curtis Draper. Cox believes this success is because the store has outpaced the trends, with the help of strong leaders at the helm. "We just try to stay ahead of the game, to do the right things and make the right moves," he says. "There will be changes we'll have to make as a cigar store....I am going to do whatever is necessary."
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