Eight Women Have Defied the Odds to Run Their Own Tobacco shops
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Cvar also has no regrets on her career choice. "Fred and I talked about what we are going to do in the next few years and we can't see ourselves doing anything else. We just like it and still enjoy it. It has been an interesting 25 years."
Like Cvar, Linda Squires of the Squire Tobacco Shop in Santa Rosa, California, discovered that pipe smoking would play a role in her entry into the tobacco industry. Squires grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, attended college in California and, while working at a record store in a mall in 1970, fell in love with Barney Squires, who happened to be a pipe smoker. They soon married. In 1973, the newlyweds took a trip to Europe, where they decided to visit pipe makers and retailers in Copenhagen, Denmark. The couple was so fascinated with what they encountered that upon their return to the United States, they decided to open a tobacco shop.
Armed with $3,000 and a love for the business, they rented the front foyer of an old Victorian house in Santa Rosa. The Squires only had an antique display case with enough room for about six to eight boxes of cigars. Despite the meager space and limited product availability, the tobacco shop caught on, and after just eight months, the Squires moved to a larger downtown location. Two years later, they relocated into the Coddington Mall. Today, they have an 800-square-foot store at a different location within the same mall. For the past 12 years Linda has operated the store because Barney has worked as a Northwest region salesman for Consolidated Cigar Corp. Linda has never doubted her career choice.
"I think that life is too short to do something that you hate. I love this business, I love cigars, I love the fact that people are coming in and buying something that they take home and enjoy," she says. "They buy cigars for pleasure, for relaxation, for enjoyment--and I think that is just great. You are talking about a product that is handled with such love and care right from the beginning."
Despite the love and the success, the shop wasn't immune to the downturn in the industry that preceded the current boom. While many other tobacco retailers were closing in the late '80s because of lackluster sales, the Squires were diversifying their business, adding men's gifts and accessories and even an espresso bar, when such bars were still a novelty, to the store. Keeping abreast of trends is one of the reasons that the shop has survived, Linda Squires says.
"We had some lean years. I think my good fortune is that my husband visits every shop in the Northwest and he sees what the successful people are doing. He can see people who are making mistakes, and he is my partner and mentor," she says. "He has his eyes open all the time, so we are constantly talking about the trends and what he sees people doing that have proven successful for them; this is so invaluable."
Squires hasn't had to suffer from sexism very often. She says that people in the industry have always treated her with the utmost respect, have supported her, and that she always felt very welcomed. That doesn't mean that people don't come in and want to talk to a man. But she says that her "feathers aren't ruffled one bit" when some customers assume that she doesn't know anything about the business. They don't know, for example, that she is on the board of directors of both the RTDA and TAA, a feat few women, or men, have accomplished in their careers.
The Squires have two children, Michael, 11 and Kimmy, 7. Her daughter has already started talking about doing displays for the store, but it is still much too early to tell if she wants to be the next generation, Squires says with a laugh.
Squires believes that the heightened interest in cigars is starting to slacken somewhat, noting that the store no longer sees the huge increases that it experienced the past several years. However, she says that the store is still profitable and that cigar smokers are here to stay. "I see the business continuing in spite of whatever legislation happens in the next few years," she says. "I think this trend is here to stay and the people that have fallen in love with the cigar, people who never smoked a cigar before and are smoking one or two a week, I think that antismoking legislation is not going to stop them."
South of the Squire Tobacco Shop lies the Mission Pipe Shop in San Jose, California. Donna Brown, who started the shop with her husband when she was a nonsmoker, was bothered when customers assumed that, as a woman, she wasn't knowledgeable about tobacco. Years later, an older salesman whom she met at a trade show gave her a piece of advice that would represent a turning point in her career. He told her not to worry, because "men sell bras and they don't wear them." That made her realize that she just needed to know the product well and that if she knew her business, she wasn't going to have any trouble.
Brown, a native of Chicago, attended the University of Wisconsin. After graduation, she and her husband, Bob, moved to California. In 1977, Bob, who was a teacher, bought a small tobacco shop in San Jose called Crest Pipe Store. The plan was that the former owner would continue to run the store for a year until Bob quit teaching to take it over. At the time, Donna was splitting her time between taking care of her two young children, working for a newspaper and helping out at the store one day a week.
One day the store manager had to have emergency back surgery and someone was needed to run the store. Donna took up the challenge. She operated the store for about a year and a half, and in 1978, the Browns bought a larger store, the 1,800-square-foot Mission Pipe Shop, which was located at a small shopping center.
Donna Brown continued to run the store, while her husband kept his teaching position and helped out on Saturdays. In 1981, Bob Brown and a friend, Howard Kushner, bought a tobacco store in Walnut Creek, about 40 miles to the north. The shop, Walnut Creek Tobacco, was located on a main street underneath a parking garage. Donna hired help and split her time between both stores. In 1989, an earthquake weakened the structure of the Walnut Creek Tobacco building. The Browns transplanted the store to a shopping center, but because of high rents and an exhorbitant California tobacco tax, they closed the Walnut Creek shop three years later, keeping the Mission Pipe store.
"The store has always made money," says Donna Brown. "A lot of the stores had started to branch off into gifts and I really did not want to do that. I wanted to do what we did, which was tobacco, pipes and cigars, and I wanted to do it in depth and do it more thoroughly than other people did. Even though a lot of the other stores started to close, our business was always fairly strong." Brown tries to have cigars in all prices ranges, to get cigars that represent value. Yet, two things concern her: the rising price of cigars, and taxation.
"Cigars are just getting very expensive and I am afraid that they are going to price themselves right out of the market. My husband teaches school, and if we weren't in the cigar business it would be very difficult for him to buy a $10 cigar," she says. "In 1989 we took a terrible hit because of the California [tobacco] tax, and they are talking about raising that again. If people want to smoke they are still going to do it, but you get to the point where they are so expensive..." she trails off.
The Browns have two children: a daughter, Julie, who teaches elementary school in nearby Fremont, and a son, Ryan, who attends Las Positas Junior College in California. Julie worked for the Brick Hanauer company for a while, selling cigars on the East Coast. Ryan, who smokes cigars, works for a large liquor chain that sells cigars. Donna Brown doesn't know if either child will take over the business.
Brown is currently remodeling her store because the business has thrived and expanded so much. "We are remodeling because we really feel that there is more business out there. Sixty-five percent of my business is cigars. That is strictly cigars, not including humidors and things like that," she says. "We do a fairly brisk tobacco business. [And] we don't want to neglect our pipe smokers."
For Brenda Roberts, selling cigars was the ultimate challenge. "I loved retail and I was a woman in a man's business," says the owner of Baker Street Tobacconist, Clocks and Gifts, in California's Napa Valley. "I was also a nonsmoker at the time, so it was kind of a seat-of-the-pants sort of thing and there I was, and 11 years later, here I am."
Roberts, a native of Denver, originally came to California in 1982 to work as a production director at a radio station in the Napa Valley. Soon afterward, she left the station for a position at an investment banking firm in San Francisco. In 1986, while she was managing a pager company in Napa, the local tobacco store came on the auction block. Roberts decided to buy it.
She was only 25 at the time and didn't know a lot about the business. But she made it work through the help of an older employee who knew a lot about buying and selling tobacco, she says. She learned everything hands-on, and while at first people were a little skeptical, she won them over with her thirst for knowledge. "People were looking at me and assuming that I didn't know anything," recalls Roberts. "So I would start talking to them and giving them recommendations, and suddenly they realized that yes, I do know what I am talking about. You fight that over the years and you [have] to fight it less and less as you get older."
Roberts fought hard to make her store successful. She attributes her success to listening to the customers and keeping the inventory at a high level. Although the store is only 600 square feet, she keeps it chock-full of cigars, pipes, tobacco, gifts and clocks of all sizes--the products that her customers want. But she emphasizes the tobacco.
"We are a tobacco shop first and a clock shop second," she says. "The idea was for an English sort of thing with Baker Street and Sherlock Holmes, so it had to be something that would mix well and that Napa needed and that I had a passion for. It's fascinating--it works because you have the sight, sound and aroma thing going on. It is a comfortable feel: good smell and good sound."
From the outset the store was successful, with business increasing by at least 10 percent each year, she says. Business got so big that Roberts built another, bigger store in nearby St. Helena. Each store has a walk-in humidor, and the tobacco and clock theme is prevalent throughout. While the Napa store is more of a local institution, the 1,200-square-foot St. Helena store is more tourist-oriented because of its location.
More tourists and locals may soon flock to Roberts' store and other tobacco shops because, as of January 1, a California law will prohibit smoking in all work places, including bars and private clubs. "It is horrendous," Roberts says. "That is going to cause some real changes or closures. I can't understand how long the public is going to take this."
That concern aside, Roberts loves the business, especially her customers. With six employees, she has a bit more time to breathe, although running both stores leaves her little time for herself, and she says she is too busy to open another store.
Roberts' business continues to thrive. She has reaped the rewards of hard work, she says, and has high hopes for the future, that her business will continue to prosper as long as she fulfills her customers' wants and needs. "No matter whether it is tobacco or china, you have got to go with the flow and listen to your customers, and I think as long as you continue to change and adapt and listen, you will be OK," she says.
At the Tinderbox in Atlanta, Georgia, the owner, Sherrin Willis, has learned to adapt and change with the times. Born and raised in Savannah, Willis worked for neurologists after college. In 1989, she and her husband, Bob, a certified public accountant, bought the 850-square-foot Tinderbox store at Lennox Square in Atlanta. Their plan was to keep their day jobs until they retired and in the meantime leave the store in the hands of some managers, but they soon learned that owning a tobacco store is a very hands-on, give-it your-all sort of business. Sherrin began working full-time in the shop, and Bob joined her two years later.
"The first two to three years were a struggle," she recalls. "As a matter of fact, I think that most tobacco shops were selling gifts to pay the rent. I was in the store from six o'clock till nine at night for two and a half years, trying to get everything done. There were many times that I felt like throwing in the towel."
Though she was tempted to give up, Willis stuck with it and finally saw the cigar renaissance, which gave stores like hers a much-needed boost. Now she can't keep cigars on the shelf, especially the cigars that her customers most demand. And she really loves dealing with the customers. "We have some of the nicest people in the world shop in our store, and it is like an extended family. It feels pretty good to be accepted after the struggle I had," Willis says. "That is probably one of the most rewarding career moves I have ever had. After a good, hard day's work in the store, you go home feeling like you have done something."
Not all of her customers have been pleasant, however. Several years ago, a man came into the store looking to purchase cigars. As the owner, Willis offered her assistance. He began barraging her with questions about particular cigars, testing her knowledge. Willis, oblivious to the insults, calmly answered each question. The more answers she gave, the angrier he became, until he finally stormed out of the store. "He didn't know that I owned the store and told me that he was going to get me fired because I had a smart mouth and a bad attitude. I didn't tell him anything," she says. "He comes back, but not when I am around."
Incidents like this are rare, says Willis. Of more concern to Willis is the state of the cigar industry. "The things that really bother me are all the new stores and the price gouging. I think that that is really bad for the industry. I don't think the new taxation is hurting, because I think that the customers are prepared to pay that to enjoy their cigars. But the only thing that really worries me is somebody charging $15 for a $4 cigar."
Even though cigar prices are high, Willis does a brisk business. In 1995, sales were up 70 percent from the year before, and in 1996, the business was up another 50 percent. She and her husband work as a team: he is in charge of cigar buying and accounting, and she purchases the cigar accessories and other gifts and is responsible for the staff and making sure everything runs smoothly.
With business doing well, what happens next? "I think that [the growth] will eventually have to slow down a bit," says Willis, but "I think that the cigar smokers we have gained as new customers are going to be cigar smokers forever." *
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