An Interview with Oscar Boruchin
Owner of Licenciados and 8-9-8 Collection cigars.
Marvin R. Shanken
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97
(continued from page 1)
Boruchin: Nine dollars.
CA: What did you sell it for?
Boruchin: Ten dollars.
CA: You only made a $1 profit on each box?
Boruchin: Don't forget that I was buying 10, 12, sometimes 15 boxes at a time. In my mind, I was thinking $15 a day would be over $100 a week. That was two and a half times what I was making driving a taxi. For me, it was tremendous. Within two months, it de-veloped into a tremendous business. Two months later, I had people helping me. I was buying a couple of hundred boxes a day. I didn't have a market in Miami. I came to New York to sell the surplus.
CA: In 1961, what brands were people bringing with them?
Boruchin: They were bringing Por Larrañaga Cedros, Romeo y Julieta Churchills and a lot of H. Upmanns, which was the easiest cigar to get in Cuba at the time.
CA: Did you offer different prices for different-sized cigars?
Boruchin: No, every box was $9. Size didn't matter. Brand didn't matter. Nothing else.
CA: You started selling the cigars in New York?
Boruchin: The Miami market got clogged up. I couldn't sell anymore. I didn't sell them to Mike [Mersel, former owner of Mike's Cigars] because he wanted to pay too little money. But Zelig [Gimelstein] was paying me the $10, also any size, any box. You can imagine he was making a killing. At one point, however, he owed me money. He couldn't get rid of the boxes as fast as I was buying them. It was funny. A lot of people at the airport distrusted me, and they wouldn't sell me any cigars. I would give them a card with my telephone number. At first, I did it as a joke, but within a couple of weeks my wife was spending 20 hours a day answering the phone from people who wanted me to come pick up the cigars they hadn't been able to sell.
CA: Was there anything illegal about your activity?
Boruchin: I don't know. I never checked. I paid my taxes at the end with my accountant. I don't know if it was illegal. I don't think it was.
CA: When the glut developed in Miami, you came to New York with the cigars. Who did you sell them to?
Boruchin: The people who were buying from me in Miami were shipping the cigars to New York anyway. I found out about that, and I took a plane up here. I ended up on 86th and Broadway at a little tobacco shop owned by Mr. Danny Blumenthal [today, the owner of Villazon].
CA: How did you know that he was a buyer?
Boruchin: Somebody told me about three or four people in New York, and that he used to advertise Cuban cigars for 60 cents each on a big sign on the wall. So I figured he had a lot of Cuban cigars. I sat down in his office, and I asked him for $12 a box. He nearly broke my arm shaking it. He never said yes or no, but he always paid the freight. I shipped him all I could buy. And he bought. I kidded with him not too long ago that I wanted some of my cigars back. I was shipping almost an unlimited amount, and he was selling everything.
CA: But we're talking about hundreds of boxes that you were basically buying one or two boxes at a time from all the people that came off the planes. Were there not importers bringing in large quantities?
Boruchin: No, I was buying them one by one from the public.
CA: How long did that last?
Boruchin: About seven or eight months, and then Castro stopped allowing people to bring the boxes of cigars. My business died immediately.
CA: By now, it must be 1962.
Boruchin: Yes. And I was out of business. Zelig owed me like $6,000 or $7,000 for cigars.
CA: You must have been doing very well if you could operate and have some guy owe you that much money.
Boruchin: I was making a few hundred dollars. I already left the poverty level at that point. I wasn't poor. So, Zelig had two stores. One of them was located on Lincoln Road and one on Alton Road inside a drugstore. The owner said to me, "Now what are you going to do?" I really had no idea, but I knew the cigar business a little, especially the Cuban end, so he suggested to me that to pay off his debt to me, I could take over the little store on Alton Road in Miami Beach. I asked him, How much could I make? He said, "Oh, you can make, easy, $125 a week. In 1962, $125 a week wasn't bad. And I would be working on my own. I figured I could do a little better because that store had an absentee owner. I knew I would take better care of it. That started the most terrible period of my life. The store was open from 7 a.m. to 1 at night. We used no help. So, it was me, my wife and my father-in-law taking care of that little business without any help. It was a neighborhood store and we were selling, two, three hundred dollars a day. Cigarettes, candy.
CA: Did you make a $125 a week?
Boruchin: I was able to do better. But, if you divide that between the hours I was spending in the store, it worked out to about 30 cents an hour.
CA: What was the name of the store?
Boruchin: The drugstore used to be called the Hotel Pharmacy, and our store was called the Hotel Pharmacy Tobacco Shop. It was inside the pharmacy. From there, we acquired another little store on 5th and Washington, which was the heart of Miami Beach at the time. It was near the gymnasium where Cassius Clay used to train before he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. There was some action there with the Dundee brothers as the promoters. They brought a lot of big smokers to that area. I had the tobacco stand right under the gym. We did very well there but we were open 20 hours a day. So, it was a tremendous stress.
That's when I met the regional sales manager for General Cigar. They used to call on me because I used to buy a lot of White Owls and Tiparillos and a lot of brands. This guy liked me, and he used to say he didn't understand why a young man like me had to be behind the counter selling cigars to these old people. He said my future was maybe to work for a cigar company. He felt that if I came with him and I worked the way he expected me to work, he promised me that I was going to do very well with the company. He was a big inspiration for me. His name was Earl Casten. I give him credit for building General Cigar's business in the South. He offered me a job as his supermarket man. At that time, many supermarkets sold cigars and had big displays of cigars. They told me that if I went into a place that is not a supermarket, I would be fired. My job was strictly to go into supermarkets and launch the distribution and make sure General Cigar got the most prominent position.
I had an edge against the other salesmen because I still had my cigar stand. I used to take the other guys' cigars off the rack, put General's in and bring the other cigars to my shop. I had no problem. The other people couldn't do it because they couldn't get rid of the cigars. I did a hell of a job in supermarkets.
CA: That's a very creative approach to selling.
Boruchin: Taking the competitor off the shelf? Yes, it was, but the General people liked it and that's the way I started with General Cigar in 1963. By the way, I started with $85 a week salary.
CA: But you kept your stores?
Boruchin: I did keep them. But I promised myself that the moment my salary went over $120 a week, I would sell the stores. I used to finish at 5 p.m. with General and run to my stores. It was really stressful with the long working hours. But it didn't take me too long to reach my goal, and I sold both stores.
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