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